The collection of drawings by Apel·les Mestres: a collection to discover

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Mercè Saura and Francesc Quílez

The Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings of the Museu Nacional conserves in its collection more than four thousand drawings by the artist Apel·les Mestres Oñós (Barcelona, 1854-1936), of the forty thousand that the artist himself said that he did throughout his life. For a couple of years now, the Cabinet has been working with the aim of providing visibility to this vast collection of drawings and making this major heritage asset available to all the public, coming for the most part from the donation that the artist made in 1934, and of his legacy, which was incorporated in 1951. 

Apel·les Mestres working in his study, in Passatge Permanyer, Nº 14
Apel·les Mestres working in his study, in Passatge Permanyer, Nº 14

In quantitative terms, after the Agell collection, made up of more than 15,000 works, the Apel·les Mestres collection is one of the most important heritage sets in the collection of the Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings. This figure shows the creative fertility of a versatile and multifaceted artist, able to carry out intense activity in different disciplines. His is a poetic connotation with a nineteenth-century aroma, since his interests ride between the romantic novel, both the cult, as well as the popular serialised novels, customs, the recovery of medieval Catalan heritage or the cultivation of collecting that connects with a period model. In the end, this visual eclecticism, full of hybridisations, crystallises into a model that breaks with the hierarchy of genres and chooses to play with the factor of artistic permeability, of traditions.

In the same way, he does not hesitate to incorporate literary fiction, or even theatre, as an ingredient of its aesthetics and show his complicity towards the legends, myths, narratives, tales and all kinds of stories that nourish the popular imagination. However, these aspects do not detract from the value of an original contribution that has transcended historical temporality to become a suggestive, original proposal, in which popular culture, as a counterpoint to bourgeois elitism, plays a very prominent role, making no distinction between high and low culture.

The Museum of the Performing Arts preserves a set of drawings, most of which being models of figurines, that highlight the participation of Mestres in the composition of theatre sets, among which the intervention in the work Clorinda (1881) stands out, by the composer Nicolau Manent (Mahon, 1827- Barcelona, 1887).

Precisely, Mestres drinks from the sources of popular tradition and, with fine irony, as a characteristic feature of repressed and bohemian authors, he turned social conventions upside down and prefigured himself as a heterodox artist who would inaugurate an underground current, often irreverent and as a transgressor, which would be consolidated with the emergence of modernity, linked to the inauguration of the tavern of the Quatre Gats, considered to be the major founding episode of these new trends. All these aspects underline his status as an unclassifiable artist.

Ramon Casas, Portrait of Apel·les Mestres, c. 1897-1899
Ramon Casas, Portrait of Apel·les Mestres, c. 1897-1899

This uncontrollable drive explains his attraction to new means of artistic representation, as was the case of poster art, a genre of which, along with Josep Lluís Pellicer (Barcelona, 1842-1901), Mestres could be considered as one of its precursors.  His sketchbooks, of which the collection of the Museu Nacional preserves a significant number, reflect his interest in a practice, of which he proclaimed himself to be a great enthusiast. The proof is that in one of these pages we can find references, turned into preliminary sketches, of his participation in the public competition called by the cigarette brand, París, in 1900 and 1901. Along with those he promoted of Anís del Mono, or the cava company Codorniu, the competition became one of the most important artistic promotion initiatives of the time.

From the city of Buenos Aires, his place of residence, the industrialist Manuel Malagrida i Fontanet (Olot, 1864- Barcelona, 1946) called a contest to promote the image of the tobacco brand, Cigarrillos París, which Malagrida was manufacturing. The second competition, called in 1901, already had an international scope and, as is well known, the winner was the Italian poster artist, Aleardo Villa (Ravello, 1865- Milan, 1906).

One of the results of the work we have been carrying out, has been the fact of being able to confirm that one, or perhaps both, of the large-format preparatory drawings, from this competition, which is conserved in the collection of the Cabinet of Drawing and Engraving, was done by Apel·les Mestres. We are talking about the drawings of the Study for the poster “Los Cigarrillos Paris”, which its author presented with the respective slogans, Et Voilà! and, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. At the top on the left you can see the label with the correlative contest numbering, the first, 376, and the second, 375.

Study for the poster ‘Los cigarrillos Paris, c. 1901; and Study for the poster ‘Los cigarrillos Paris’ (Mark Antony and Cleopatra), c. 1900. Both preparatory drawings for the posters of the Los Cigarrillos París.

As for the first, there is no doubt about its authorship, because Mestres did a drawing, dated 26th July 1901, which already has the same compositional arrangement and is part of one of the notebooks preserved in the Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings.

Preparatory drawing dor the poster 'Los Cigarrillos Paris son los mejores'
Apel·les Mestres, Preparatory drawing dor the poster ‘Los Cigarrillos Paris son los mejores’, 1901

In the case of the second one, we speculate about the possibility that it could also be a work by the same author, given that the characteristics of the handwriting of both works is almost identical, so we dare to propose, as a plausible hypothesis, that they are a production of a single author. The fact that the way they entered the collection was the same and that both had until now been considered anonymous creations contributes to supporting this assumption.

In one of the photographic images conserved, which corresponds to one of the rooms in which the originals presented by the artists were exhibited, you can see the presence of one of the posters produced by Apel·les Mestres and which forms part from the collection of the Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings.

Apel·les Mestres and his contribution to the history of Catalan drawing

The task carried out has allowed us to delve into the knowledge of a very unique figure and has also helped us to highlight the value of his contribution to the history of Catalan drawing. 

Apel·les Mestres was born in Barcelona in 1854 into a cultured family. His father, Josep Oriol Mestres (1815-1895), was a renowned architect. He studied at the Llotja School of Fine Arts in Barcelona with great artists, of whom the Cabinet also preserves some drawings, such as Antoni Caba (57 drawings), Claudi Lorenzale (816 drawings) and Lluís Rigalt (264 drawings), amongst others.

Around the age of 20, he began his activity as an illustrator, we can see him working for 20 or 30 rals (25 cent coins) in the weekly magazine La Campana de Gràcia, transformed after its closure into l’Esquella de la Torratxa, one of publications of satirical humour and social criticism of major relevance in the world of journalism. In this sense we have found a very interesting number of drawings published for both magazines, from the headings, almanacs or composition of various scenes with the representation of characters of the time, to which he always knew how to give a lot of vivacity, surrounded by comic and satirical motifs which demonstrated his great skill, both in stroke and in texts, full of great finesse and subtlety that revealed his cultured and polite way of doing things.

Apel·les Mestres, Croquis per a la Campana de Gràcia. Poch a poch se va lluny., 1881
Apel·les Mestres, Sketch for the Campana de Gràcia. Poch a poch se va lluny., 1881

Apel·les Mestres, editorial illustrator

In the course of reviewing the drawings of d’Apel·les Mestres we were able to verify that in his facet as an illustrator he took care of a multitude of editorial commissions. Apart from the numerous illustrations for magazines and weeklies, there are also thousands of drawings – some published and others unpublished – of literary works of narrative and poetry, as well as children’s stories.

In this sense, it is worth highlighting the existence of an album with 28 drawings to illustrate the work El Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (Alcalá de Henares, 1547- Madrid, 1616), which he was commissioned to do in 1879. To fulfill this commission from the publisher Joan Aleu i Fugarull (1845-1923), Mestres went on a long journey to discover the lands of La Mancha, during which he filled an album of abundant drawings for what would become his first major work. To illustrate the same author, Cervantes, a folder with the drawings intended for the work Rinconete i Cortadillo, dated 1882, is preserved.

Other commissions for works such as illustrating El Lazarillo de Tormes (anonymous work) produced in 1882, La Dama de las Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas, son (Paris, 1824- Marly-le-Roi, 1895) around 1880, The death and the devil, of his friend Pompeu Gener (Barcelona, 1846-1920) (produced between 1881-1884), El sabor de tierruca, by Jose Maria de Pereda (Polanco, 1833 – Santander, 1906), (around 1881) or Charles Perrault’s series of short stories (Paris, 1628-1703), among others, are not lacking in his repertoire.

Apel·les Mestres, Estudi per a il·lustració “La dama de las Camelias”, 1880
Apel·les Mestres, Study for an illustration. ‘La Dama by Las Camelias’, 1880

We make a special mention of the work of the National episodes by Benito Pérez Galdós (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1843- Madrid, 1920) and in the collaboration of Apel·les Mestres for his drawings, of which we can find epistolary documentation between the artist and the writer dating from 1882 to 1905, both in the Casa Museo de Benito Pérez Galdós, in Las Palmas, as well as in the collection of the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona.    

In relation to the working meetings that were to arise for the execution of this great work, there is the curiosity of a drawing that Apel·les Mestres was doing at the time when the visit of Galdós interrupted him. This is noted by the artist in the drawing itself with an inscription at the top right that reads: “Session interrupted by the visit of D [on]. B [enito]. Pérez Galdós » with the particularity that this drawing is dated 12th July, 1882. Therefore, we can conclude that on this day the illustrator received the visit of the writer to his house.

As for the drawing that he was doing at the time, it was a Study of figures, about which it is difficult to know which episode it corresponds to.

Apel·les Mestres, Estudi de figures, 1882
Apel·les Mestres, Study of figures, 1882

Apel·les Mestres, also a writer

While it is true that in the field of the arts he excelled as a graphic artist, Apel·les Mestres, a multifaceted and versatile man, also wrote stories and poems that he himself illustrated. In 1882, he published a series of stories called Cuentos vivos, with an original conception for his time in the panorama of children’s and youth literature, and with drawings that contain an intense expressiveness in comics such as El conde Tal (produced between 1877-1881), La sonda (drawn around 1879-1881) or Cuatro hombres y un cabo (of 1881).

Another work that we cannot omit is the poem of Liliana, which appeared in December 1907, expressing his love for nature. A poetic text, with a marked pantheistic meaning, decorated with his own illustrations that represent a fantastic world full of gnomes, sylphs and other forest beings, of which about 76 magnificently executed drawings have been revised. On this subject, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya held an exhibition in 2005, which was curated by Cecilia Vidal.

Mestres discovered the world of the Japanese print that had become known from the Universal Exposition of Barcelona in 1888. His fascination with the Eastern world left a clear influence on the stylisations and Japanese details already evident in Liliana and which we can also find in the drawings for the editions of Idil·lis (around 1883-1890), or Balades (drawn between 1882-1900), amongst others. This enthusiasm for Japaneseism led him to collect books of prints (some preserved in the museum library) and engravings of which the Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings preserves 23.

Yoshiiku Utagawa, Cortesana, 1860
Yoshiiku Utagawa, Courtesan, 1860

The list of literary works he published is very extensive and we cannot mention all of them, but we will finish by remembering the one dedicated to his friend Alexandre de Riquer (Calaf, 1856- Palma, 1920) in 1908 with his own illustrations «La llegenda poemàtica. La Perera» of a medieval theme written in prose. The drawings are dated between 1907-1908, although it should be taken into account that Apel·les Mestres at this time had lost much of his sight, a process that had begun at the beginning of the century. 

Drawing  Riquer and my feet (045347-004, album K). Box of albums, still pending revision.
Drawing Riquer and my feet (045347-004, album K). Box of albums, still pending revision.

The collection of Apel·les Mestres of the Museu Nacional, soon possible to be consulted

Given the huge graphic work of Apel·les Mestres that is preserved in the Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings, we are nearing the end of a long journey that we are on the point of completing, with the revision, documentary research and validation of the files of all the drawings, to publish the collection through its online viewing and so that this collection can be consulted.

Images of the reserve where the drawings of Apel·les Mestres are conserved

Being able to make a set of these features available to everyone will be the culmination of a long process of work and will help to spread one of the most unknown visual repertoires of all the ones that the Cabinet of Drawings and Engravings has.

Related links

Scenes of creation: artists’ workshops /1

The fantastic world of Japan in the Museu Nacional collections

Ramon Casas and the Chinese Shadow Puppets. Bohemia and the popular imaginary

Francesc Quílez
and
Mercè Saura
Gabinet de Dibuixos i Gravats

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