BOSTON -- The marquee names are as good as it gets; the subtitle rings no bells at all. "El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III" might seem to promise a basic survey of Spanish masterpieces. But wait! The period begins in 1598 and ends 1621. El Greco died in 1614, well into his 70s. Velázquez, born in 1599, did not leave Seville for the court in Madrid until 1622. We are too early for Zurbarán, for Murillo, to say nothing of Goya. So what of note is there to say of Philip's abbreviated and obscure quarter century? For answers, visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by July 27, or catch the show at its second stop, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, N.C. (Aug. 21-Nov. 9).
Notwithstanding the humiliating loss of the Armada in the ill-fated naval attack on England in 1588, the preceding four decades under Philip II, the father of Philip III, had seen Spanish power at its fragile zenith. That iron-willed monarch predicted that the younger Philip would prove incapable of governing the kingdoms God had given him and would be governed by them instead. As it turned out, Philip III could hardly be bothered. The Encyclopaedia Britannica dismisses him as "a devout, phlegmatic nonentity." Matters of state devolved to a favorite, the Duke of Lerma, whom historians in the past have likewise scorned, perhaps unfairly.
The stellar equestrian portrait of Lerma by Rubens -- the Flemish master's first stab at the genre -- is the single non-Spanish painting in the current exhibition. The horse in particular is a marvel: gleaming white in the sunshine, dark eyes sparkling, mane flowing like a siren's tresses. And if the mount looks more animated than the rider, there's good reason. In Spain on diplomatic business for the Duke of Mantua, Rubens took Lerma's features from an official portrait by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz in Valladolid. The duke was off in Burgos reviewing the troops, unavailable for a sitting.
The presence of Rubens makes a crucial point. By common consent, El Greco and Velázquez rank among the sublime originals of European painting: the ecstatic visionary and the radiant naturalist. For that very reason, each seems in a sense to spring from nowhere. But the curators -- Ronni Baer at the MFA, Sarah Schroth at the Nasher -- set out to provide a context broad enough to account for both. They succeed to a remarkable degree, yet each of the stars remains a law unto himself.
The didactic intent by no means rules out sheer pleasure. Of the 60-odd paintings on view, the 11 by El Greco include some of his very greatest: "View of Toledo," "Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino," "Portrait of an Ecclesiastic." Velázquez, whose supreme achievements travel rarely or not at all, is represented less thunderously with seven works, including his hard-bitten portrait of the disillusioned courtier and poet Luis de Góngora y Argote and that precocious display of virtuoso brushwork, "Old Woman Cooking Eggs." The masterpiece quotient is thus very high.
And the rest? Of the 17 other names on the checklist, only the baroque master Jusepe Ribera is passably familiar -- and, at that, many will know "the Little Spaniard" better by his Neapolitan moniker, Lo Spagnoletto. Several crisply lit, quietly monumental still lifes of produce suspended in an open window or laid on the sill -- patently the work of a single artist -- enjoy something of a cult following, yet Juan Sánchez Cotán, who painted them, verges on anonymity. Eugenio Cajés and Vicente Carducho, often mentioned in the same breath by those who know them, contribute twin treatments of the seated Christ at Calvary. Hung side by side, as here, the canvases are bewilderingly alike and unalike: same model, same pose, one human, one ideal.
The exhibition opens with a stunning suite of late El Grecos; from there on, the organization is flexibly thematic. Portraiture leads the way, contrasting the strictly formalized depiction of royalty with the psychological rendering of great personages in other walks of life. Sacred subjects follow, in full court press. Where germane, sculpture complements the paintings.
Grouped under the heading "Religious Institutions and Private Patrons" are grand treatments of ecclesiastical standards, from Annunciation to Resurrection. The Immaculate Conception -- illustrated by the Virgin Mary standing on the moon, her hands lifted in prayer -- is singled out for special attention. One bland, doll-like Madonna (by Sánchez Cotán, the fruit-and-vegetable man) is prettily framed by a yellow full-body halo, or mandorla, which a discreet wall label likens to the birth canal. She cannot hold a candle to the unassuming Mary of the people whom Velázquez sets against a stormy sky.
The Iberian cult of saints informs the section on the genre of the Apostolado (consisting of sets of 13 individual canvases representing Christ and the twelve apostles). St. Francis of Assisi has a section to himself. Carducho shows the saint in midair, face to face with a Christ crucified on pink wings. Francesco Ribalta has the saint clasping Christ on the cross and kissing his pierced side. In a very different mood, Ribalta shows St. Francis in ecstasy, transported by the sounds of the Musical Angel, who plucks a lute as an oblivious Brother Leo reads by candlelight. As far as the curators know, all of these visualizations are one of a kind. A small section on Spanish saints underscores a spiritual presence in the lives of everyday people. The final gallery is devoted to the still life and so-called bodegón. Typically rustic in character, these "pantry paintings" may incorporate scenes that tell a story, whether of daily life or from Scripture.
All in all, the painters showcased here form a rather motley crew -- intentionally so. Connoisseurs will amuse themselves spotting influences. Within a single room, Ms. Baer pointed out an Oriental fashion show à la the elder Gentileschi, a tender pastoral à la Bassano, and a Venetian-style angel (think Tintoretto or Veronese). The angel is frozen in mid-cartwheel, supported on the heads of Saints Joachim and Anne.
The lesson here? Spanish artists got around, notably to Italy, and brought their memories of its many splendors back home. Thus a budding apprentice of Francisco Pacheco in Seville, Diego Velázquez by name, could see far beyond the local horizon. Not that this explains away his genius. What could?
And Velázquez is hardly the only enigma. In a stroke of bravura, the curators make a point of showing each member of their supporting cast in various contexts. Conforming to rigid templates, artists of very different personalities may look indistinguishable, as in the stiff, sharp-focus double portraits of (different) royal children by Juan Pontoja de la Cruz and Bartolomé González. But reconcile, if you can, those embalmed princes and princesses with Pantoja's "Resurrection," which features a Christ sailing in the air in a golden halo, scarlet drapery rustling about him, while soldiers gape below in light and poses straight from Caravaggio; an altogether different temperament is in evidence.
I have mentioned the surprises in the work of Sánchez Cotán. But more startling still is the case of Luis Tristán, whose every canvas in the show seems conceived by a different mind -- and executed by a different hand. "El Greco to Velázquez" is a brave push into territory it will take years to map.