The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is presenting View of Bermeo of 1783 by Luis Paret y Alcázar (Madrid, 1746-1799), acquired from the heirs of José Luis Várez Fisa. The painting has been obtained with an interest-free loan thanks to the sponsorship of BBK, to be repaid over the following years with the contribution from the Friends of the Museum.
In addition to its undoubted artistic value, View of Bermeo of 1783 is of enormous historical interest given that it is considered the first work in a series of paintings depicting the ports of Cantabria and is the first view of the Basque Country painted by this artist from Madrid. Born in the same year as Goya, various controversial events in Paret's life led to his banishment, firstly to Puerto Rico then to Bilbao, which prevented him from maintaining his prominent position at Court, a fact that to some extent favoured Goya's professional success. At that point the Basque Country had almost no artistic tradition, for which reason the presence of a painter of Paret's importance can be considered a remarkable artistic event and one that was decisive for its artistic and cultural evolution.
View of Bermeo is one of the most outstanding works of 18th-century Spanish painting and can be considered the first surviving modern and purely artistic image of a location in the Basque Country. This oil, which is in excellent condition despite its delicate copper support, perfectly combines a carefully devised composition and setting with an exquisite, detailed finish. Paret presented the scene as a social encounter in which he dignified local people and customs, offering an unprecedented visual record in the context of the Basque Country. The panel was painted in 1783 for the future Charles IV, son of Charles III and at that date Prince of Asturias, possibly with the aim
of facilitating the end of Paret's banishment which was imposed on him in 1775 due to his involvement in the dissolute life of the Infante don Luis, younger brother of Charles III. Paret's imposed exile was finally repealed in 1785. The artist conceived the work as a pair to another view of Bermeo (present whereabouts unknown) in which he depicted the port during a squall.
The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum has thus increased its holdings of the work of Luis Paret y Alcázar and its collection now includes View of El Arenal in Bilbao, 1783-84; Scene of Villagers (fragment), 1786; View of Fuenterrabía (fragment), 1786; The Triumph of Love over War, 1784; The Virgin with the Christ Child and Saint James the Greater, 1786; The Holy Shepherd, 1782; and the recently acquired View of Bermeo, 1783.
The brief period that Luis Paret y Alcázar spent in Bilbao, between 1799 and 1787 or slightly later, represents an extremely important episode in the history of Basque art even though it came about through a chance sequence of events. In 1775 Paret was exiled to Puerto Rico due to his involvement in the dissolute life of the Infante don Luis de Borbón, younger brother of Charles III, for whom he was not only court painter (since 1763) but also seemingly a procurer of the women required by the Infante for his amorous affairs. Paret remained in Puerto Rico until 1778, the year his punishment was commuted and he was ordered to "temporarily remain 40 leagues from the Court and the Royal Residences". It is not known why Paret selected Bilbao in order to comply with this geographical restriction.
During the years he spent in Bilbao, Paret produced a body of mature, varied and innovative work but one to some extent overshadowed by the figure of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). The works he created in Bilbao faithfully reflect the prevailing Rococo style, of which Paret is considered the maximum exponent in Spain. This style favoured a type of relaxed, frivolous and inconsequential painting that looked for pretexts to convey the indolence and joie de vivre of the wealthiest classes. Such qualities are evident in the artist's outstanding port views, both those painted from 1783 onwards if not slightly earlier, and the ones executed following the royal commission of 4 July 1786 when Charles III entrusted the artist with painting the ports of Cantabria.
The Basque ports painted by Paret decorated the rooms of the future Charles IV in the so-called Casita del Príncipe and the Casita de Abajo in San Lorenzo de El Escorial. They remained there until the French invasion, when some were looted by the Napoleonic troops. Given that not all have been located and without the necessary documentary information, it is not known how many works Paret painted and which ports were depicted. Aside from their artistic merit, his views of Cantabrian ports are particularly important from a historical viewpoint given that in them the artist offered a very topographically accurate reproduction of these Basque ports.
It should be noted that few comparable works in terms of style and subject matter were produced in the Basque Country or in the rest of Spain during the 18th century, particularly of the quality of Paret's paintings. In this respect reference should be made to "the complete collection of all the views, ports and bays of Spain and adjacent islands, as well as its shipyards", commissioned from the Valencian painter Mariano Sánchez (1740-1822) as a collection of marine views for the future monarch. Another reference here are the thirty-three drawings of views commissioned by the Spanish monarch from Pedro Grolliez y Servier, a military engineer of French origin, between 1782 and 1785. These commissions dating from the reign of Charles III and characteristic of the Enlightenment period are generally associated with the Collection of Views of the Ports of Spain and Portugal, followed by those of France painted by Alexandre-Jean Noel, a follower of the famous landscape and marine painter Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), which were reproduced as engravings by Francisco Allix. Also known are various single prints of the port of Cadiz by Nicola Maria Ozanne, "Naval engineer and pensioner of His Majesty" Louis XVI of France. Aside from those by Groillez none of these views depict the Basque coastline, making Paret's series a unique record of outstanding artistic importance.
View of Bermeo, signed and dated 1783, is the first known view by Paret and probably the first of the series that he executed. Painted on copper, it measures 60.3 x 83.2 cm. It corresponds to number 215 (the number that appears on the front of the painting) in the inventory of works belonging to the Prince of Asturias in the Casita de Abajo, where it must have formed a pair with a similar view. Rather than a view with a calm sea, as in the present work, the pair showed the port during a squall.
Paret's painting depicts the old port of Bermeo, formerly known as the "cay" or "small port". In order to paint it the artist set up his easel on the right quay of the inlet to the port, now known as the Venancio Nardiz quay, specifically at the point where Néstor Basterretxea's sculpture is now to be seen. From there Paret had a sweeping view of the town on the cliff, dominating the port.
This panoramic image starts at the Gothic church of Santa Eufemia on the left of the composition, continues through the famous Ercilla house and tower in the centre of the painting and arrives at the ruins of the church of Santa María de la Atalaya on the right. Built of sandstone in the Gothic style, the exceptional size of this church (84 metres long by 55 wide), for which documentary references date back to the early 14th century, means that it was one of the most imposing religious constructions in Bizkaia and was the venue for meetings of the town's guilds and confraternities. Built on a Latin cross plan, it had a nave and side aisles, a crossing, numerous chapels and sacristies and three bell towers, as well as four entrances corresponding to the cardinal points. After the fires of 1504 and 1722 the building was so damaged that it fell into ruin.
According to Juan E. Delmas: "In 1776 the vaults collapsed, for which reason mass has not been celebrated there since 9 February 1784 when the ornaments, religious sculptures and other treasures were moved to the parish church of Nuestra Señora de la Atalaya." 1. For this reason, on 12 June 1782 a decree was published which stated that: "worship should cease in the said church and the decision taken to rebuild the nearby church of Santa Eufemia", 2 which had also been declared a ruin in 1780. In 1784 Juan Martín de Uriberrondo "inspected the church […] and was appointed to proceed to survey it in order to make use of the good material" 3. Saved from the ruin was the tower, which is easily visible in Paret's View but due to the risk of collapse it was eventually demolished in 1853. It is known that some remains of the church still survived in 1859 4.
With regard to the church of Santa Eufemia: "On 23 April 1782 demolition work began on the tower of the parish church of Santa Eufemia del Castillo, as it was in danger of collapse, the representatives of the town council being Don Joaquin de Uriarte and Don Manuel de Aurrecoechea, as recorded in a notarial document before Don Santiago de Barandica […]." 5. Work began on the new tower, designed by Gabriel de Capelastegui, on 17 June of that year, "[…] and was completed on 11 June 1783 and the parish functions were moved to Santa Eufemia on 16 February 1784." On 1 August 1783 the cross was installed on the tower and on 16 February of the following year (mistakenly stated by Delmas to be 9 February) mass was once again celebrated in Santa Eufemia.
Paret's painting clearly shows the tower of Santa Eufemia in the process of being rebuilt with the belfry half-completed. Given the advanced state of the building work on the tower and bearing in mind that it was completed in July 1783, it can be assumed that Paret was in Bermeo starting work on his View during the first half of 1783. While he could have been present in the town in 1782, the advanced state of the building work on the tower, the date of the painting and the artist's preference for working outdoors in favourable weather conditions suggest that the spring-summer of 1783 was the moment when Paret found himself in Bermeo starting work on his celebrated view.
Due to its artistic merit this view of Bermeo was reproduced as an exquisite table top inlaid with onyx, chalcedony, serpentine and other semi-precious stones and hardstones. It was produced in the Royal Buen Retiro Hardstone Manufactory, very probably during the final years of its activities under the direction of Luis Poggetti.
EWith regard to Paret's views of Basque ports, the National Gallery in London has a View of El Arenal in Bilbao, an oil on panel of 1784 that is identical in size to the View of Bermeo. The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum has another View of El Arenal in Bilbao, while the Museo Cerralbo in Madrid has a View of Portugalete that was cut down horizontally and probably also vertically. Like those three works, it can be assumed that the view of The Shipyard at Olabeaga (private collection) was not executed as part of the royal commission that Paret received in 1786, given that Olabega is not a seaport.
In relation to the royal commission, four works have survived that were executed from 1786 onwards: a view of La Concha in San Sebastián, another of The Port of Pasajes in Gipuzkoa (both Patrimonio Nacional, Spain) and two views of Fuenterrabía, one in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Caen (France) and the other in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. The latter View of Fuenterrabía was cut in half vertically and cut down around the edges in the past.
Javier Novo Gonzalez
Head of Collections Department, Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao
1 Juan Bautista Eustaquio Delmas, Guía histórico-descriptiva del viajero en el Señorío de Vizcaya. Bilbao, 1864, p. 124.
2 Cirilo de Zabala Allica. Atalaya histórica de la muy noble e muy leal villa de Bermeo. Junta de Cultura de Vizcaya, 1964.
3 Enciclopedia General Ilustrada del País Vasco. Diccionario enciclopédico vasco. Uran-Urrug. Editoria Auñamendi, 1999, p. 283.
4 Javier de Ybarra y Bergé, Torres de Vizcaya. Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto Diego de Velázquez, vol. 3, 1946, p. 108.
5 Irune Allika & Victor Uriarte, Bermeoko toponimia. Bermeo, Bermeoko Udala, 2015, pp. 278-282 [for the church of Santa Eufemia] and pp. 359-360 [for the church of Santa Maria de la Atalaya].