Housed at the Hispanic Society of America, this often-overlooked museum in Manhattan’s Washington Heights hides one of the largest collections of Spanish art and manuscripts outside Spain. There are 18,000 works of art in this impressive collection, including 900 paintings, photography, textiles, jewelry, ceramics, and over 300,000 books and periodicals in the library, including some 15,000 volumes printed before 1701. The collections include many paintings by artists such as Francisco Goya, El Greco, Murillo, Zurburan, and Diego Velasquez.
The museum was founded in 1904 by Archer Milton Huntington, the son of a wealthy New York railroad and shipbuilding magnate. Huntington was exposed to art at an early age and also traveled widely. It was a trip to Europe in 1882 that sparked his love of Spain. He visited the country’s galleries and museums, and wrote in his journal, “I think a museum is the grandest thing in the world. I should like to live in one.”
Huntington took up Spanish at age 14, and after accompanying his parents on a trip to Mexico in 1889, he decided that maybe he couldn’t live in a museum, but he could start one. By 1890, he had almost 2,000 Spanish books in his personal library, and began planning his museum. At first, the museum was housed in his Bronx estate, and was made up largely of his own collection of books and art. He continued to grow his collection by taking frequent trips overseas. In 1904, he purchased land in Washington Heights, which would be the future home of the Hispanic Society of America. The collection grew and grew, and now includes cultural items from part of Portugal and Latin America as well.
Huntington saw his museum as a place that “must condense the soul of Spain into meanings, through works of the hand and spirit.” He once said “I wish to know Spain as Spain and so express her—in a museum. It is about all I can do.” Today, the museum keeps this spirit with not just its extensive collection of art and scholarly tomes, but it also offers educational programs, concerts, and gallery talks by curators and conservators. The collection today rivals the masterpieces of the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the Metropolitian Museum of Art.