My recent long weekend looking at paintings of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, reminded me of how few Spanish landscape painters are now known outside the country of their birth. The work of Martín Rico y Ortega (1833–1908) was widely recognised in the late nineteenth century, and can be seen today in some of the major American collections, as well as those in Spain.
Rico was born in one of the most famous villages near to Madrid, El Escorial, which is known for its royal palace, Monasterio del Escorial, which has a superb collection of European paintings over the period 1400-1700. I don’t know whether Rico saw any of the paintings and so became inspired to become an artist, but he went to study first at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, the most prestigious academy in Madrid.
While he was studying there, he painted a series of watercolour landscapes of his home town and its environs. Among them is this View of the Village of El Escorial with the Church of Saint Barnabus (1852-58). This appears to have been painted in front of the motif, and for the rest of his career, Rico was to be an enthusiastic painter en plein air.
His Bullfighting Party in El Escorial (1852-58) is another promising watercolour from his student days.
Rico progressed to oils by 1858, when he painted Guadarrama Landscape, which was shown at the National Exhibition of that year. This rugged area is now a national park, and is to the north-east of El Escorial. The mountains shown are the Sierra de Guadarrama. This dramatic view shows the influence of his Professor of Landscape Painting at the Academy, who was a renowned Romantic.
The following year, Rico painted Near Azañón (1859), further to the east in arid country, and introduced the lone figure of a ‘wanderer’, popular in Romantic and Gothic landscapes earlier in the nineteenth century.
When he had completed his studies in Madrid, Rico was awarded a scholarship to travel to France to continue his training there. Unfortunately, his attempt to become a pupil of Charles-François Daubigny were unsuccessful, so he concentrated on painting river scenes around Paris in his realist style, influenced mainly by the Barbizon School.
Country View from 1861 appears typical of his landscapes from this time.
While he was painting en plein air, he met and befriended the great Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame, and accompanied him to his native Switzerland.
In 1862, Rico painted this Swiss Landscape, with the encouragement and advice of Calame.
Perhaps Rico’s finest painting of his early career is Washerwomen of Varenne from 1865. A group of fifteen women, some with babies and children, are on the bank of the local river. They transform this landscape with their activity and the rhythm of their figures.
Rico also made friends with Camille Pissarro, presumably when the two met painting outdoors near Paris. However, in 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and Rico, like most foreigners in France, had to leave the country. He returned to Spain, where he went to stay with Marià Fortuny, who had just moved to Granada.
Under the influence of Fortuny, Rico’s style started to mature. I suspect that Gathering Oranges, Granada was painted during the two years or so that they shared a studio in Granada.
Rico may have started A Summer’s Day on the Seine (1870-75) before he left France, and perhaps completed it when in Spain.
Rico’s finely-detailed view of La Torre de las Damas en la Alhambra de Granada (The Tower of the Ladies in the Alhambra) was painted in 1871-72, when he was working with Fortuny in their Granada studio. It captures the dilapidation which the Alhambra had fallen into before more recent work to restore it to its former glory.
In 1872, Rico seems to have visited the French port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, at the southern end of the Bay of Biscay, where he painted this marvellous view of the Mouth of the Bidasoa.
Rico was finally ready to make the last step which would secure his future: to leave his native Spain and paint in Venice, which I will examine in the next and concluding article.