Skip to content

Jose Arpa: From Spain to San Antonio


Jose Arpa y Perea Self-Portrait

Jose Arpa y Perea


by Jeffrey Morseburg

Jose Arpa y Perea is a challenge to write about because he lived his life on three continents, crossing the Atlantic Ocean countless times in the years before trans-Atlantic travel was comfortable. So, archival information on Arpa is found in Spanish Andalucía, the Mexican State of Veracruz, across Argentina and finally, in our own state of Texas. And Arpa’s work is found in all the locations in which he lived during his long and fruitful life. While the artist’s paintings are now highly sought after by the top tier of Texas collectors, he still remains a little-known figure, one that is thought of as a painter with only a regional interest to Spanish, Mexican or Texas collectors. During his lifetime, Arpa was a widely respected and well-loved figure that played an important role in the development of art in every place that he lived. It is my hope that by writing more extensively about Arpa’s life and career, we can make this gentle soul better known for his art and his manifold accomplishments.

Jose Arpa y Perea was born on February 19, 1858 in the small Spanish city of Carmona, which sits on a ridge overlooking the broad Andalusian plain, in the province of Seville. He was born into modest surroundings, for his father, Antonio Arpa was a cobbler who worked at his bench all day to make a few pesos to feed his wife Gracia and the children. Arpa displayed extraordinary artistic ability from a young age, and so, in order to give him some chance at a better life, at ten he was apprenticed to a painter and a decorator in Seville, the capital of Andalucía.

“May you live in interesting times” is curse with ancient origins, and the Spain that Arpa grew up in was going through some very interesting times. In 1868, the year he was sent to Sevilla, the reining monarch, the ineffectual Isabella II, was deposed and a period of chaos ensued, during which many institutions were reorganized, including the art academies. Arpa was an industrious boy and he applied himself doing house painting and decoration during the day so he could attend evening classes at the Academia Real des Bellas Artes (The Royal Academy of Fine Arts). He bgean his studies while he was still in his teens and became a full-time student in 1876. Arpa was trained in the classical techniques, beginning with a class in the basic principles of art (“Principios”), then the study of the head and figure (“Figura y Cabezas”) and then on to extensive instruction in life study (“Figura”).

Arpa’s first important instructor and mentor was Edouardo Cano (1823-1897), who was born in Madrid but grew up and was trained in Seville, then at the Royal Academy in Madrid and finally, Paris. Like most of the Spanish painters of his era, Cano was highly influenced by French painting, and in fact his most famous work, “Christopher Columbus in the Convent of La Rabida,” was painted in the French capital. Because he was a painter of grand, sweeping historical epics, Cano emphasized a very classical approach to his students, with precise draftsmanship and the constant practice of drawing from life. At the academy, he taught composition, where the students learned how to create complex historical tableaus with many figures, and it was his background in composition that allowed Arpa to become an exceptional muralist later in life.

Sloping Hills by Jose Arpa y Perea

The Fortuny Influence

During Arpa’s early period in Sevilla, the brilliant young Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1974) came to live and paint in Sevilla for several months and, during that short time in Andalucía, he had a major impact on the younger artists and students. While Fortuny was was only thirty-two at the time, he was already internationally famous, both for his epic scene of Spain’s victory over the Moroccans in 1860, “The Battle of Tetuan,” (Museum of Modern Art, Barcelona) and even more for his small plein-air paintings of typical Spanish subjects known in Spain as costumbrismo.

Fortuny had lived and painted in North Africa during the Moroccan war, and the intense light of the desert was a revelation, one that changed the course of not only his art, but his nation’s. He began to paint out-of-doors, directly from nature as the Barbizon painters were doing in France, but he painted in the vivid light of the Spanish day rather than in the morning or late afternoon. His ability to capture the bright Spanish light in his painterly canvasses made his paintings popular with collectors as far away as New York. Younger Spanish painters and even foreign artists began to emulate him by adopting looser brushwork and painting during the middle of the day when more rational people were enjoying a siesta.

While young Jose Arpa probably did not meet Fortuny during the dynamic painter’s short sojourn in Seville, many of the other Sevillian painters did. It was through the young artists of the Spanish city, who adopted Fortuny’s enthusiasm for plein-air painting, that Arpa’s artistic development was forever altered. Through Fortuny’s influence he came to love the truth and beauty of plein-air painting. Throughout his long career, he emphasized the importance of painting out-of-doors, working directly from nature. And it was his skill at capturing the fugitive light while standing at his little portable easel that gave his work its great vitality. While horsemen speak about “saddle time” as the way to hone their horsemanship, it is the hours that a painter spends working from nature that gives them the ability to paint a landscape that feels fresh and true, and from early in his career Arpa spent long days under the Spanish sun in order to master his craft.

Cactus Flowers by Jose Arpa y Perea

Prix de Rome

In 1882, Arpa completed his studies at the Academia des Bellas Artes. He won the prestigious “Prix de Rome” award from the academy. Most English language biographies of Arpa incorrectly state that he won this award in Rome, but in actuality, the prize was a modest scholarship awarded by the provincial government, which gave him the opportunity to study in Rome. As we have seen, during the long reign of the Bourbon Kings and Queens, the French influence in Spain and on Spanish art was great, so it should come as no surprise that the Prix de Rome award in Seville was modeled on the scholarship that was awarded to its top student each year by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for a period of study in the “eternal city.” Since the Renaissance, artists had looked back to Greece and Rome as models of the ideal forms of art and architecture, a font of inspiration. The young painters who went to Rome on scholarships were sent there to draw from the classical sculpture in the museums, to work among the ruins, to soak up the power and grace of the classical era.

The provincial scholarship that Arpa won entitled the artist to live at the Spanish academy in Rome, which had only opened in 1873. Arpa apparently had his scholarship extended, but the circumstances of this extension need to be researched more extensively. From the late 18th century it had become a tradition for young painters to live and paint in Rome at the conclusion of their formal studies and that tradition included painting landscapes in the city and outside it on the Roman Campagna. The head of the Spanish academy in Rome when Arpa arrived was Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848-1921), another painter of historical scenes, but he was also known for his small costumbrismo studies, in which he depicted provincial Spaniards in their unique regional costumes.

At the same time that Arpa was in Rome and painting in the city, another brilliant young Spanish painter was there, an artist from Valenica named Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), who arrived in 1885 with a scholarship from his provincial government. As two Spanish painters in Rome, Arpa and Sorolla would have would certainly have known each other well, but the relationship between them needs to be explored further. At that time Sorolla, who would become known all over the world for his light-filled canvasses, was still under the spell of Goya and working in a darker palette.

Another major artistic influence whom Arpa mentioned in later interviews was the Spanish painter Martin Rico y Ortega (1833-1908), a Madrid-born artist who lived in France for many years, where he was influenced by Francois Daubigny and the Barbizon School. Rico was had traveled extensively in Italy with Fortuny and became an enthusiastic adherent to painting under the mid-day sun. Most plein-air painters traveled extensively in order to find interesting subjects and Rico painted throughout Spain and Italy and worked extensively in Rome. After 1879, rented a palazzo and spent his summers in Venice. It was during Arpa’s years of study in Italy that he painted with Rico. We know Arpa copied Renaissance masterpieces in Florence and Venice and whether he spent time with Martin Rico in the romantic seaside city or Rome isn’t clear. He also painted in Italy with Jose Villegas Cordero (1844-1921), another Spanish painter who had been influenced by Mariano Fortuny and a proponent of Orientalism, the depiction of the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

In the French tradition, at the conclusion of his Roman studies, the Prix de Rome winner was obligated to provide the sponsoring academy with a major painting, a “diploma work,” but whether this obligation extended to Arpa and there is a painting in Seville as a consequence has not been discovered. Apra lived and painted in Rome until 1886. According to a family friend, who interviewed the painter late in his life, he intended to stay in Rome longer, but a serious illness caused him to return to Spain to convalesce.

Arpa spent nine years back in Spain. He was active with a number of art socities and his work was reproduced in Blanco y Negro (“Black and White”) as well as “La Illustracion Artistica.” He sent paintings to exhibitions in Madrid and Berlin and completed an ambitious project, the painting of a series of ceiling decorations in the Circulo Mercantil Sevilla (the Seville Mercantile Building) on the theme of Arts & Commerce. In 1893, his work was selected for the exhibtion of Spanish art at the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago world’s fair. In 1894, he accompanied a Spanish military exhibition to Morocco as an illustrator, which gave him the opportunity to see North Africa, the land that had inspired Fortuny and a number of other Spanish painters.

Verbena by Jose Arpa y Perea

Arpa in Mexico

Sometime in late 1895 or early 1896, Jose Arpa sailed from Spain to Vera Cruz, Mexico. Arpa’s move to Mexico was a striking one for the time. Most painters of the era who were seeking a change or looking for greener pastures would have moved to France or the United States. In the Arpa literature, the reason that has usually been advanced for the move was an offer to head the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City. The way the story was told, he made a grand departure, accompanied by a Spanish warship no less. This story came from the San Antonio papers, where it was published early in the Spanish artist’s stay there, and has followed him ever since. At the time of his departure, Arpa was a talented Spanish painter who was just beginning to establish himself in Spanish and international exhibitions. So, he almost certainly would not have had the stature or the experience to be offered a position at a major academy, let alone be escorted by a warship, an act of diplomacy more suitable for a foreign dignitary.  To be continue…

Do You Have a Jose Arpa Painting That You Need to Have Appraised or Evaluated?