The Sota Family - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

2024-06-21 • 2024-10-13

The Sota Family

Art and Patronage

Rooms 1-5

Ramón de la Sota y Llano (1857–1936) was one of the most prominent masterminds beyond the spectacular economic growth that Bilbao and its area of influence experienced at the fin de siècle. This growth was primarily driven by the naval and metallurgy industries and promoted by a buoyant bourgeoisie yearning to gain an image of modernity through a renewed approach to art and culture. 

The legacy of the Sota family, who had played a prime role in the city’s cultural life since the late nineteenth century, can be found not only in the prestigious old and contemporary art collection that the Sota Aburtos assembled in their homes in Bilbao and Getxo, but also in the architectures they promoted—many of them with pioneering solutions for the Basque Country—and several family members’ active participation in some of the initiatives that turned Bilbao into an international cultural touchstone. Their history, which was abruptly punctuated by the outbreak of the Civil War and the retaliation against them, celebrates the spirit of a time when collecting and patronage had a decisive influence on the assimilation of modern culture. 


Adolfo Guiard

The Sota family’s interest in art sprang from the friendship between Ramón de la Sota and the impressionist painter Adolfo Guiard in the 1880s. Guiard, a key figure in the introduction of impressionism, was a pioneer in experimenting with this movement in Paris in the early 1880s. Upon his return home, he continued to spread it in Bilbao, albeit not without naysayers and controversies, such as the one that arose between the writers Miguel de Unamuno and Antonio Trueba on the modernity embodied in Villager from Bakio. The initial complicity between Guiard and Soto was enhanced by their nationalist political and ideological affinities and led to a close relationship, as the painter became a regular on Sota’s yacht, the Goizeko Izarra. The industrialist come to own more than fifty of the painter’s works—most of them depicting places in Vizcaya such as Gernika, Murueta, Bakio and others—which he lent to several exhibitions, such as the posthumous one devoted to the painter in 1916. Sota’s sons carried on this interest, so Alejandro de la Sota and his brother Manu promoted the exhibition and homages to Guiard in 1927.  

The power of a new century

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Bilbao’s industrial and mercantile might fostered the rise of the bourgeoisie and the urban expansion of a city that aspired to be modern and cosmopolitan. The Sotas were one of the families behind this growth, especially in the late 1910s, when they reached their peak prosperity and public prestige that extended across culture, politics and society. By that period, Ramón de la Sota had built an empire by founding and owning shares in different mining companies, the Sota y Aznar shipping company, the Astilleros Euskalduna company and others in the banking and insurance sectors. Many of the works by contemporary artists that he owned reflected his interest in lyrical themes and figures associated with the Basque Country, on both land and sea, his overarching passion. This can be seen in the Quintín de Torre sculptures and his commissions to Guinea to create the idyllic stained-glass windows in Ibaigane and to Durrio for an ornamental piece for that same property. Several Regoyos paintings explain the source of his wealth. 

The old art collection

The important collection by the Bilbao industrialist Ramón de la Sota y Llano included more than 200 works by different artists and schools. He clearly divided his works between his two private residences: classical artists in Ibaigane (Bilbao) and modern ones in Lertegi (Las Arenas). To add old masters, Sota capitalised on the collecting fever that took hold of the capital of Vizcaya in the early twentieth century and the city’s flourishing art trade, while also drawing from the help of figures like the painter Ignacio Zuloaga, who was an expert in Goya and El Greco. Unfortunately, we only know about many of his old master works from references recorded in family inventories because they were seized by the Franco authorities in 1937, when Sota was levied a huge fine because of his ties with Basque nationalism. Many of them have never been restored to their legitimate owners. Nonetheless, thanks to photographic references and detailed documents, some works, like an impressive portrait by Cornelis Van der Voort, were recently located and returned to the family.  

Sota and architecture

Ramón de la Sota invested in the real-estate business, especially in Bilbao and Getxo. He meant to rent out some of his properties, especially the tenement houses, while others were meant to be family homes or the headquarters of his companies. He worked with three architects from Vizcaya—Gregorio de Ibarreche, Manuel María Smith and Ricardo Bastida—and with the British architects Frederick Chatterton, William Edward Couch and Frederick Lindus Forge. The regulations at that time forbade foreigners from signing off on architectural projects, so in those cases his trusted technicians signed on behalf of the actual designers in order secure the building permits. Generally speaking, his developments stand out for the quality of the materials both indoors and outdoors, some of them imported from England. Some of them also stand out for being early pioneers in Vizcayan architecture and others for the uniqueness of their design. 

Ignacio Zuloaga

Ignacio Zuloaga, a painter from Eibar, is the most celebrated Basque artist of all time and one of the most prominent names in European art in the first third of the twentieth century. The modernity of his works after 1898 garnered him international success, which translated into many accolades in Europe and the United States and a high commercial demand for his works. He became highly prestigious for his opinions on artistic matters and was also an avid collector. His relationship with Ramón de la Sota began with the acquisition of The Break in around 1900, but they became closer after 1918 when the industrialist commissioned the artist to paint his portrait and two landscapes. Zuloaga also painted portraits of Sota’s wife Catalina de Aburto and advised him on some of his acquisitions, like Goya’s portrait of Martín Zapater. Worth special note is Sota’s purchase of the portrait of Countess Mathieu de Noailles from the painter for the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum at the Bilbao International Exhibition in 1919. 

The arrival of modernity

Advised by some of his sons, Ramón de la Sota expanded his collection of artists associated with impressionism and naturalism with younger artists, like Aurelio Arteta and José María de Ucelay. Additionally, after going into exile in Biarritz during the Civil War, his firstborn son, Ramón de la Sota Aburto, who initially worked in the family businesses and politics, assembled an art collection with the help of Julián de Tellaeche with a special focus on Iturrino and Regoyos. Two other brothers, Alejandro and Manuel, were fervent promoters of Basque culture in Bilbao in the 1920s. Alejandro directed the Editorial Vasca publishing house, where he published several books, and he contributed to Hermes, a magazine his father had helped to found in 1917. Manu also stood out for his contributions to different publications and his plays, and he was friends with Antonio de Guezala, a Basque artist working closer to the postulates of the avant-garde, who painted a futuristic portrait of his sister Begoña in 1927. The artistic legacy of the Sota family was abruptly punctuated by the Civil War. From exile, they continued to demand their seized assets, promote Basque culture in publishing or artistic initiatives like the Eresoinka choir and keep up close ties with artists in exile like Ucelay, Tellaeche and Arteta. 

Exhibition catalog

Los orígenes de una colección. Los museos de Bellas Artes y Arte Moderno de Bilbao

  • Author: Miriam Alzuri Milanés, Patricia Fernández Lorenzo, Javier Novo González, Maite Paliza Monduate
  • ISBN: 978-84-18171-19-2
  • Language: Spanish
  • Measures: 21 W x 28 H
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • N°. of pages: 204
  • N° of illustrations: 154 (color, B&W)

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