History - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


From Romanesque art to the early avant-garde movements and their successors, the collection of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum offers a survey that encompasses the principal artists, styles and schools in western art through representative examples.

The collection includes works by key figures within the history of art, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, Maerten de Vos, El Greco, José de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Orazio Gentileschi, Francisco de Goya, Joaquín Sorolla, Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, Ignacio Zuloaga, Francis Bacon, Eduardo Chillida, Antoni Tàpies, Miquel Barceló and Richard Serra, among many others. The sizeable representation of local artists makes this the finest and most representative collection of Basque art in any institution, with the most complete list of artists. Classics include Adolfo Guiard, Darío de Regoyos, Francisco Iturrino, Aurelio Arteta, Jorge Oteiza and the above-mentioned Zuloaga and Chillida, to mention just a few.

At the present time the collection totals more than 19,000 works, of which a large part, around 15,000, are an abundant collection of works on paper—drawings, prints, posters and photographs—over 2,000 are paintings, and around 500 are sculptures. The decorative arts are also represented in the collection with nearly 800 examples, including the Palacio collection of Oriental art and a number of ceramic pieces from Manises dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. With the exception of some archaeological items from earlier periods, such as the collection of Etruscan figurines and a stone bust from Palmyra, and a number of recent acquisitions of works created after the year 2000, the collection represents a chronological survey from the thirteenth to the twentieth century.

The cultural context and the “Association of Basque Artists”

Visitors will be impressed and surprised by the richness of the Museum’s holdings, which reflect the context in which it was founded, the personalities of those who contributed to it and the subsequent history of the founding collection. The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum was established in response to the aspirations of an emerging bourgeoisie in Bilbao which, at the start of the twentieth century, was eager to combine the region’s new economic prosperity, derived from the flourishing steel and ship-building industries, with a parallel cultural renaissance. The result is a late example of the foundation of new museums that took place across Europe in the nineteenth century. As such, it is perhaps even more significant that this civic initiative, supported at an institutional level (by the City Council and Provincial Council) and by an active group of artists, was able to achieve its goal, founding in 1908 the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1914. All those involved firmly believed in the Museum’s educational mission and, even more admirably, were aware of its contribution to modern art. This collective endeavour is in fact one of the Museum’s distinctive features, surviving throughout the course of its history and still evident today.

As a result of these factors, the Museum became a part of the collective consciousness of local residents at a time when other institutions and initiatives were also being created with the same forward-looking approach. Within the context of culture, and to name just a few examples, between 1900 and 1910 six exhibitions on modern art were held in Bilbao, while the following year, 1911, saw the founding of the Association of Basque Artists, which functioned until 1937 as an active cultural agent, organising exhibitions, facilitating encounters between local and foreign artists and promoting a wide range of activities. The ultimate aim of this dynamic artistic scene was to affiliate Bilbao with modern art, for which a first-hand knowledge of the new centres of art elsewhere in Europe was required. A few years earlier the painter Darío de Regoyos had met the Belgian avant-garde painters in Brussels, while the sculptor Francisco Durrio, another key figure for Basque art, had acted as cicerone in Paris for the sizeable community of Basque artists there, among them Ignacio Zuloaga (one of the key figures in the Parisian art scene and also closely associated with this Museum) and Francisco Iturrino, a friend of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and André Derain.

Between 1901 and 1904 Durrio lived in the famous Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, subsequently remaining in Paris for more than another fifty years, during which time he met many of the key figures of modern art, worked on ceramics with Picasso and enjoyed a close friendship with Paul Gauguin. Durrio always maintained close links with Bilbao, his adopted city, and was also active for many years as an art dealer, particularly for his patron, the businessman Horacio Echevarrieta. In a reflection of the above-mentioned philanthropic spirit that inspired the birth of the Museum, in 1919 Echevarrieta donated The Rape of Europa, one of Martin de Vos’s most important paintings.

First International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture

In 1918 the Association of Basque Artists invited Robert and Sonia Delaunay to present their first exhibition in Spain. This intention to make Bilbao a focus for modern art was even more evident the following year when the city was the venue for the First International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture. Organised by the Provincial Council and by a commission headed by Ramón de la Sota and made up of artists, architects, collectors and critics, including the influential critic Juan de la Encina, the exhibition was crucial for Bilbao’s artistic future as the presence in it of work by leading international artists such as Picasso, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Maurice Denis and Mary Cassatt significantly contributed to the education of young local artists, albeit in a delayed fashion.

In addition, the Provincial Council of Bizkaia acquired from that exhibition the works that would subsequently become the nucleus of the Museum of Modern Art. They included Seated Woman with a Child in Her Arms by Mary Cassatt and Gauguin’s Laveuses à Arles (Washerwomen in Arles), which were the first examples of these two leading Post-impressionist painters to enter a Spanish public collection and for many years the only ones. De la Sota acquired and donated Zuloaga’s Portrait of Countess Mathieu de Noailles, while other works in the exhibition, such as two lithographs by Cézanne, subsequently entered the Museum’s collection from various sources.

Donations, bequests and loans

The participation of private individuals who donated, bequeathed or deposited works was fundamental for the creation and growth of the Museum’s collection and reflects a type of cultural patronage characteristic of the time, which required patient dedication and discretion on the part of the private collector and which has to some extent survived to the present day.

Among such patrons were Laureano de Jado, who, after an initial donation of seventeen works, bequeathed his entire collection in 1927, and Antonio Plasencia, who, in the same period, donated around a dozen works and would give a further 37 during the course of his lifetime.

The prevailing artistic taste of the day and the particular interests of each collector were among the factors that determined the subsequent growth of the collection’s principle areas. It also resulted in the addition of collections that are unparalleled in the context of the region and which constitute one of the Museum’s unique features due to their quality and exceptional nature. The Jado bequest is a key example, comprising an important group of Flemish paintings, followed by the collection of almost 300 pieces of Oriental art assembled by José Palacio. The latter entered the Museum in 1953 in an initial donation by his heir María de Arechavaleta, who bequeathed the rest in 1954.

Between the time of the founding of the Fine Arts Museum on 5 October 1908 and its opening to the public on 8 February 1914 the Board of Trustees was founded, the Museum’s statutes drawn up and the collection assembled, comprising long-term loans from the Provincial Council (the largest area), the City Council, the State, the School of Arts and Crafts, and the Santa Casa de Misericordia, among other institutions, along with long-term loans and donations from private individuals.

The School of Arts and Crafts

Principally comprising art from previous centuries, the collection was installed in three galleries which had been designed for that purpose by the municipal architect Ricardo Bastida in the handsome Neo-classical building of the old Hospital Civil in Atxuri, which had become the School of Arts and Crafts when the Hospital moved to Basurto. Reflecting both the intention to appoint a connoisseur-director and the role artists had played in the creation of the Museum, the first director was the painter Manuel Losada. Over the following years the collection grew through acquisitions (some as important as El Greco’s The Annunciation), long-term loans and donations from private individuals and artists, in addition to public subscriptions that raised funds to acquire works by Zuloaga and Benito Barrueta, among others.

The spaces for the display and storage of works from the collection, numbering around 250 in total, soon became too small, while the location of the Museum proved to be unsatisfactory in terms of attracting visitors. In light of these issues, which started to become pressing, the Board of Trustees firstly requested a new building where the works could at least be stored, and also that a proposal to construct a new ‘Palacio de Bellas Artes’ should be considered. While various options were studied (all of which were ultimately rejected), the Bilbao art world generated the climate of enthusiasm necessary for the foundation of a new museum, this time devoted to modern art.

The Museum of Modern Art

As a result, in 1922 Lorenzo Hurtado de Saracho presented a motion to the Provincial Council for the creation of a Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the City Council of Bilbao. The important corpus of works acquired at the above-mentioned International Exhibition of 1919—around twenty, in addition to works by living artists separated off from the collection of the Fine Arts Museum, plus new donations and acquisitions—supported the feasibility of the project, which rapidly took shape in 1924 with the creation of the Museum of Modern Art. It was housed in premises adjoining the Provincial Council building that had previously been used as a library, archive and provincial printing press. In January of that year the painter Aurelio Arteta was appointed director, a position that he would retain intermittently until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. On 25 October the new museum, designed and presented in an innovative manner for its time, opened its doors to the public with a collection of 137 works. That same year the Fine Arts Museum acquired two masterpieces: Lot and His Daughters by Orazio Gentileschi, and Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women by José de Ribera.

Both institutions had thus been founded with the same faith in the potential of museums as cultural and educational entities, with collections of around the same size and with insufficient display space and installations, problems that would become more evident as their collections increased in size.

The Spanish Civil War

The start of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 resulted in the drastic truncation of the two museums’ development. Soon after the war began and due to the threat of aerial bombardment, the collection of the Fine Arts Museum was placed in storage in the Bonded Warehouse in Uribitarte, although around thirty works, the majority by Basque artists, were loaned to decorate the rooms of the Basque Government’s headquarters, provisionally housed in the Carlton Hotel.

In early 1937 most of the works from the Museum of Modern Art were sent by sea to France. In June of that year Franco’s forces took Bilbao and assumed charge of all its institutions. Works from the two museums began to be recovered and the bureaucratic procedures for the return of those sent abroad resulted in their return in late 1939.

The New Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

However, by 1938 the problem of adequately housing the two collections, now accentuated by the fact that their normal locations were not fit for use because of the war, became a pressing one. As a result, at the end of that year the architects Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas jointly presented a project for the construction of a new building in the modern part of the city known as the Ensanche. This new building was intended to house both collections. The project was approved in February 1939 by the Provincial Council and the City Council and the new Bilbao Fine Arts Museum opened on 17 June 1945. In the meantime, and despite financial difficulties, important works continued to be acquired, such as The Holy Family by Jan Gossart and The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist by Francisco de Zurbarán, among others.

The Museum’s building—declared an Historic-Artistic Monument in 1962—deployed a Neoclassical repertoire inspired by traditional museum models, in particular Juan de Villanueva’s design from 1785 for the Museo del Prado. The building has an L-shaped ground-plan, two floors with galleries for the display of the works and a basement housing internal services. The entrance lobby is one of the building’s most striking elements. With a two-tone marble floor crossed by a monumental staircase with a striking balustrade and illuminated by natural light from an overhead roof lantern and a large window on the landing, this space gives the entire building a refined, serene atmosphere. On the south side, a flat-arched gallery supported by columns reinforces the classicising symbolism of a public building with the mission of expressing, through both form and content, the chronological continuity of a discourse based on the history of art. The result would be the definitive unification of the two collections, from then on in effect and later confirmed at an administrative level in 1969. The director of the original Museum of Modern Art, Manuel Losada, was appointed the director of this new Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, a position he occupied until 1949. He was followed, until 1973, by Crisanto de Lasterra, who was responsible for the first inventories of the collection, and until 1982, by Javier de Bengoechea, who continued the initial academic projects and was also responsible for the first gallery guides.

1970s. First enlargement

After two decades of activity, the Museum’s original space once again proved too small and once more on the suggestion of Hurtado de Saracho, who was at the time Mayor of Bilbao, in the early 1960s it was decided to construct an extension to the building. The architects Álvaro Líbano and Ricardo Beascoa visited a number of European museums prior to proposing an innovative design that was completed in 1970, clearly influenced by the modern movement and the work of Mies van der Rohe. The building again had an L-shaped ground-plan, this time facing the opposite way to the original, with a large glass-walled lobby that connects the interior to the natural setting of Doña Casilda park. The first floor is occupied by a large gallery displaying modern art, in which the light enters from overhead and also laterally through a curtain wall that visually connects with the old building and the urban setting. The second floor is occupied by the Museum’s office spaces. The building’s architectural language, which eschews historical references and makes use of clean volumes and light-filled spaces, gives rise to a light, elegant building which the Foundation for the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement selected in 2010 to be included in its register of the architectural heritage of said movement.

In the 1980s new museographical criteria resulted in the need for a number of alterations that affected the building’s original appearance, including the progressive walling-up of the portico, the construction of an auditorium and the remodelling of the basement areas to house services such as the library, education department, shop and café. In the early 1990s, under Jorge de Barandiarán’s directorship, the portico was permanently closed in to house the BBK Gallery for temporary exhibitions. The Basque Government also became a governing body of the Museum, joining its founding institutions, the City Council of Bilbao and the Provincial Council of Bizkaia. At the same time the Museum acquired a number of outstanding Old Master and modern paintings, including Anthonis Mor’s Portrait of Philip II, Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Anthony van Dyck, and Gran oval (Large Oval) by Antoni Tàpies.

1990s. Foundation, Board of Trustees and Second Enlargement

In 1996 Miguel Zugaza was appointed director while in 1998, following two years of preparation, the Administrative Board approved a plan to update the Museum and place it in a leading position within the context of European cultural institutions. This plan had three principal action lines: a management programme, an artistic programme and an infrastructures programme. The first had the mission of opening up the Museum to private participation, for which reason a foundation was set up and a new governing body constituted in the form of a Board of Trustees. The second initiative launched an intensive programme of exhibitions and activities while also focusing on expanding and improving the permanent collection. During these years the Museum received various major works through dation, including Small Basket of Flowers by Juan de Arellano, Saint Peter in Tears by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and View of El Arenal in Bilbao by Luis Paret. Finally, a call for tenders was convened to design the remodelling and enlargement of the Museum with the aim of updating its facilities and services.

Among the members of the jury convened that year were the architects Álvaro Líbano, Rafael Moneo and Norman Foster. After examining the proposals submitted, the projected was awarded to Luis María Uriarte and his studio. The specified requirements for the project were aimed at improving horizontal and vertical communication between the Museum’s two buildings through a linking point and a new gallery. Another aim was that of freeing up a series of spaces in order to bring together and optimise visitor services (reception, café, restaurant, book and gift shop, library, education department and auditorium) and to increase display space for the works of art. In addition, an accessibility plan was formulated and the Museum’s entrance altered to align it with the axis that unites the city centre with Abandoibarra. Finally, the design of the Museum’s offices was reorganised and air conditioning installed in the old building.

2000s – Present day

Following the completion of building work, the Museum reopened its facilities on 10 November 2001, meeting the new century with a building that updated the appearance of two pre-existing structures reflecting two different museographical discourses: that of traditional art museums, which focus on the conservation of a collection and on promoting knowledge of it, and that of the modern structures typical of the second half of the twentieth century, which are oriented towards activities and the public. Furthermore, the city that saw the creation of its first museum at the start of the twentieth century took leave of that century with the opening in 1997 of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, representing an institutional commitment to economic and urban regeneration by means of an architectural icon.

Since that time the Museum has consolidated its position within the Spanish museum sector, focusing its efforts on research, on further enriching the collection and on visitor services, while also ensuring the long-term stability of its principal programmes. Works added to the collection under the directorship of Javier Viar between 2001 and 2017 include Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Irons of Tremor II by Eduardo Chillida, The Hispanist (Nissa Torrents) by R. B. Kitaj, and Des potirons (Pumpkins) by Miquel Barceló. In October 2008 the veteran Bilbao Fine Arts Museum celebrated its centenary, conscious of the merit of that first collective endeavour and proud of the works that it houses.

In 2017 Miguel Zugaza resumed directorship of the Museum, spearheading the extension and renovation of the Museum, designed by the architects Norman Foster and Luis María Uriarte, as the launching point for an ambitious transformation programme. At the ceremony to lay the cornerstone, held on 17 November 2022, Foster defined the project, titled Agravitas, as ‘a link between what has been inherited, the past of this great institution, and the museum of the future’.