Antonio Muñoz Degrain
Valencia, 1840 - Malaga, 1924
Antonio Muñoz Degrain, a clockmaker’s son, was born in Valencia on 18 November 1840 and was persuaded by his father to study architecture, which he soon abandoned for painting. Vehement and impetuous by nature – and these traits showed in his work – in 1856 he decided to walk to Italy with hardly any money. A student of the San Carlos Academy in Valencia from the age of twelve, he was a pupil of the painter Rafael Montesinos although, as he himself claimed, he was essentially a self-taught artist.
Like the great majority of Spanish painters of his day, he took part regularly in the National Exhibitions of Fine Arts from 1862 to 1915, and it was his successes at these competitions that decisively shaped his reputation. Indeed, in addition to receiving an honorary mention in 1862 and a third-place medal in 1864 for Vista del valle de la Murta (Alcira) [“View of the Valley of La Murta (Alcira)”], he was awarded second prizes in 1867 for Paisaje del Pardo al disiparse la niebla (“Landscape of El Pardo after the Mist has Cleared”) and in 1871 for La oración (“Prayer”).
Commissioned to decorate the Cervantes theatre in Malaga in 1870, he settled in that Andalusian capital, which he always considered his city of adoption. There he married and was appointed a supernumerary lecturer at the San Telmo Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1879. Years later he became the master of a whole generation of artists, among them the very young Picasso, who always showed him affection and respect.
The first medal to be awarded to Muñoz Degrain in 1881 for a painting on canvas entitled Otelo y Desdémona (“Othello and Desdemona”) secured him a government grant that enabled him at last to make the long hoped-for trip to Rome and visit several cities of Tuscany and Venice. It was in Italy that he produced his great work entitled Los amantes de Teruel (“The Lovers of Teruel”), a masterpiece of his entire career and one of the most important Spanish paintings of the 19th century, which won him first prize at the National Exhibition of 1884. Thenceforward his growing prestige earned him many honours and public recognitions. A knight of the orders of Isabella the Catholic, Charles III and Alfonso XII, he received the medal of honour at the National Exhibition of 1910 and, following the death of Carlos de Haes, was appointed professor of landscape at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid, of which he became a member the following year and director in 1901 until his resignation in 1912; he was also president of the capital’s Circle of Fine Arts.
Muñoz Degrain enjoyed similar success at international events such as the Universal Expositions of Philadelphia (1876), Munich (1883) and Chicago (1893).
A highly prolific and generous artist, in his old age he made significant gifts of his works to the art museums of Valencia and Malaga, the cities that were dearest to him, and of nineteen works illustrating scenes from Don Quixote to the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. He died in Malaga on 12 October 1924.
Muñoz Degrain is one of the most outstanding painters of the fin-de-siècle period in Valencia. Naturally inclined from his youth towards landscape painting, which he never abandoned, he nevertheless explored a variety of subject matters throughout his career and displayed a particular fondness for literary passages, dramatic scenes of floods, Orientalist themes and history. From his earliest works he sacrificed the rigour of draughtsmanship in favour of an impassioned and joyful vision of colour in tones that became garish and violent in his mature period in order to convey his visions of fantasy and imagination with a feast of colour and a boldness that few artists of his day dared to attempt.
José Luis Díez