Presentation of the Sota Deposit
The museum is presenting the deposit of two important paintings by Cornelis van der Voort and Luis de la Cruz y Ríos which were seized from the Basque businessman Ramón de la Sota y Llano (1857–1936) during the Spanish Civil War and are now being restored to his heirs by Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.
The two works—in an outstanding state of conservation that only required finishing touches—have been the subject of numerous studies that have enabled us to determine their authorship.
Cornelis van der Voort (Antwerp, 1576–Amsterdam, 1624)
Portrait of a Young Knight, 1623
Oil on wooden board. 122.5 x 89.3 cm
Lent from the Sota Mac-Mahon family in 2022
An inscription made by the artist on the upper right-hand corner—‘AEtatis.sua.23. / Anno. 1623’—does not match the work’s previous attribution to the painter Frans Pourbus, who died in 1622. The authorship was confirmed with the stylistic analysis, which identified one of the most intriguing portraitists in the early Dutch Golden Age, Cornelis van der Voort, who exerted a notable influence on the early works of Rembrandt. Furthermore, the inscription resembles those on other works by the artist, such as the portraits of Pieter Pietersz Hasselaer (Museum of Amsterdam) and Dirk Hasselaer (Rijksmuseum), as well as the portrait of a gentleman at the Worcester Art Museum. The same Pieter Pietersz Hasselaer also appears in a group portrait at the Museum of Amsterdam along with other members of the Schutterij, a citizen militia to which the painter belonged in around 1613. Several experts on Dutch painting from this period have unanimously attributed this work to Van der Voort. Originally from Antwerp, he moved to Amsterdam in 1585 after the Spanish occupation of the city and soon achieved notable success, especially with his group portraits, a genre to whose popularity he contributed. He was also a great art collector, belonged to the Guild of St Luke and served as its president in 1619. This portrait depicts a 23-year-old knight dressed solely in black, as imposed by the Calvinist ideal of austerity. Despite his sobriety, the young man’s clothing and attitude give a sense of his high social standing. The elaborate lace on his cuffs and the ruff with frayed ends and folds arranged less formally than in other models from the same period provide contained sophistication. His direct, vivid look and the photographic qualities of the portrait make it masterfully real.
Luis de la Cruz y Ríos and workshop (Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, 1776-Antequera, Málaga, 1853)
Portrait of Maria Christina of Bourbon, c.1833
Oil on canvas. 66.4 x 52.8 cm
Lent from the Sota Mac-Mahon family in 2022
The apocryphal signature of Vicente López has not prevented this work’s real authorship from being attributed to the Canary Islands painter Luis de la Cruz y Ríos. He was a student of Juan Ventura de Miranda and cultivated portraiture and other genres, some examples of which are conserved in the cathedral of Las Palmas and Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia church in Puerto de la Cruz. The royal mayor of Tenerife in 1808, he became the chamber painter of Ferdinand VII in 1815. In 1837 he moved to Málaga, where he became the instructor of the great landscape painter Carlos de Haes. At court, he painted the portraits of the king and queen, among other figures, in paintings that were used as gifts for different prominent personalities. This portrait of Maria Christina of Bourbon is probably one of them; several versions of it exist, the most important one, a half-body portrait, at the Museo del Prado. Though based on an identical drawing, it differs in format and in the dress and jewellery. In this version, she is wearing an off-the-shoulders dress that leaves her décolleté exposed and a hairstyle called ‘a las tres potencias’, which was fashionable in the early 1830s. A pearl and diamond crown stands in for the pin with the motif ‘F7’ (Ferdinand VII) that appears in the version at the Prado. This formal, yet also technical, simplification, leads us to posit the possible participation of the artist’s workshop. Common to all versions as the sashes of the orders of St Stephen and Queen Maria Louisa, as well as the badge of the Eagle and the Star of Maria Theresa of Austria.
Sota and the Civil War
During the Spanish Civil War, the Special Court of Political Responsibilities of Bilbao handed down sentences on 5 and 7 October 1937, and the prestigious art collection of Ramón de la Sota y Llano was seized from his residence in Ibaigane Palace. In March 1938, the General Captaincy of Burgos ruled on the proceedings on political responsibilities against the businessman and set his fine at 100,000,000 pesetas, the highest fine imposed during the Franco regime. The seized paintings were transferred to Burgos and later to Madrid, where some of them came to decorate the offices of several ministers in the regime. The appeals by the family in the 1940s and 1950s resulted in the legitimate return of some of these paintings.
By a legal ruling of the Special Judge-Magistrate on the return of the deposits issued by Political Responsibilities on 10 March 1969, in compliance with the Reprieve Decree dated 10 November 1966, the State Administration was ordered to return 170 artworks seized from the collection, including Portrait of Martín Zapater painted by Goya in 1797, and the Pietà by Luis de Morales ‘El Divino’ from around 1568, which were bequeathed to the Bilbao Fine Arts museum soon thereafter. However, not all the works were returned, and the whereabouts of some of the paintings were unknown, including Portrait of a Young Knight which had previously been attributed to Frans Pourbus, and Portrait of Maria Christina of Bourbon, attributed to Vicente López.
In 2018, one of the heirs of Ramón de la Sota y Aburto located Portrait of a Young Knight in what was called the ‘Art Collection of the Tourist Paradors’ and reported it to the family, who immediately asked that it be returned. Portrait of Maria Christina of Bourbon was also able to be located within this same context.
Ramón y Cajal Abogados has represented the heirs in their lawsuit against Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism. In the wake of a prior favourable report issued by the Attorney General, the Secretary of State of Tourism agreed to hear the lawsuit after acknowledging the heirs’ preferential right as the owners of the paintings over the State Administration, as Turespaña was unable to submit a purchase receipt nor justify that usucapion was applicable as a form of acquisition despite the fact that it had had the paintings in its possession for decades.
The report on the return and handover of the paintings was signed on 17 June at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, where they are deposited as loans to be studied and exhibited.
The Sota family and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
The Sota family’s ties to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum date back to 1919 with the donation of the splendid Portrait of Countess Mathieu de Noailles, painted in 1913 by Ignacio Zuloaga and purchased by Ramón de la Sota y Llano six years later for the then-recently created museum. The family’s generosity with the museum has endured over time and enriched the collection with numerous works from the gallery of the illustrious Bilbao shipbuilder and his family.
One example is the sketch Return from the Pilgrimage Festival by the Bilbao painter Anselmo Guinea made in 1899 for the stained-glass windows of Ibaigane Palace, the Bilbao residence of Ramón de la Sota. Purchased by the museum in 2008, it is a decorative piece in a clearly modernist language which clearly reveals Sota’s interest in ground-breaking art. In a similar sense, his acquisition of Villager from Bakio painted by Adolfo Guiard in 1888 stands out, as this is considered the first major avant-garde reference in Basque art. Purchased by the museum from the Sota heirs in 2019, its acquisition meant that three of the painter’s fundamentals works which originally belonged to Ramón de la Sota’s collection were reunited: the aforementioned Villager from Bakio; Harvest (1892), deposited by a private collection in Bilbao in 1999; and Keeping a Promise (1894), acquired in 2008.
Sota was also the owner of the Lertegui chalet in Getxo, whose garden housed the impressive bronze sculpture The Helmsman which he commissioned from the sculptor Quintín de Torre in 1913. The work remained in the family until it was donated to the museum by the Vilallonga de la Sota sisters in 1975. The family’s interest in the avant-garde is also reflected in the museum’s two works by Antonio de Guezala. The first is The Revolving Door, considered the artist’s peak work. Guezala portrayed Begoña de la Sota y Aburto, the daughter of Ramón de la Sota y Llano, in this wonderful painting which joined the museum in 2003. Later, Begoña de la Sota herself donated Basque Countrywomen with Fruit and Vegetables in 1972, a work that Aurelio Arteta had painted in around 1913–1915. The second is Artists’ Night, Ibaigane, in which Guezala rendered a bustling party held at the family residence. Purchased by the museum from the Sota heirs in 2008, it was painted for Manuel de la Sota y Aburto, Ramón’s son, who, in turn, bequeathed a splendid screen by José María Ucelay dated from 1935 in 1979. This was joined one year later by a portrait painted by Hubert Denis Etcheverry in 1891 and an anonymous seventeenth century work depicting St Francis Borgia.
Ramón de la Sota was also interested in older art. The numerous works he assembled featured Francisco de Goya’s Portrait of Martín Zapater and Luis de Morales’ Pietà. After the Civil War, when they were returned to the family, they also ended up in the museum’s collection in 1980, bequeathed by Ramón de la Sota y Aburto, the son of Ramón de la Sota y Llano. Similarly, the seventeenth-century painting Virgin and Child and Portraits by Pedro Atanasio Bocanegra was donated by Blanca, Begoña and Aranzazu Alzola de la Sota in 2002.
Finally worth noting is the participation of the Sota family in the management bodies of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. Alejandro de la Sota, Luis and Juan Olabarri Sota and José María Sota Poveda served as neighbourhood representatives of the Board of Trustees; Ramón de la Sota y Aburto was president of the museum from 1919–1920 and promoter of its library in 1918; and finally, his son Patrick de la Sota was acting president between 1979 and 1987. During his mandate, the museum was given a considerable impetus with the enlargement of the building, the creation of new services (print room, education department, shop-bookshop, library and café) and the noticeable increase in the collections, as well as his large donation of periodicals and art magazines.