The Spanish word for pansy is pensamiento; which is also the Spanish word for thought. I savor this happenstance as I study Isabel Quintanilla’s 1972 oil painting “Pensamientos sobre la nevera”—Pansies on the refrigerator—at Madrid’s National Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza. The work centers a Duralex glass with two purple pansies on the fridge of an artist who thought it worthy of a still life. Behind the pansies, a stem of jasmine seeps the sweet smell of the neighborhood in Madrid where I grew up.

It is my second visit to “Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism,” curated by Leticia de Cos Martín, and I’m jostled between crowds here to harvest their own slice of life. The exhibition is the Thyssen museum’s first solo show of a Spanish woman,1 and it took her city by storm this spring.2

Isabel Quintanilla (1938–2017) belonged to a friend circle of realist painters and sculptors who came to be known as the Madrid Realists. Once largely overlooked by Spanish cultural gatekeepers3 (the humble subjects of their démodé realism perhaps an unwelcome testament to Spain’s isolation under Franco), the Madrid Realists are now recognized as piercingly contemporary portraitists of the capital, and country, in the second half of the twentieth century.4

Isabel Quintanilla, Jardín
Jardín
Isabel Quintanilla, 1966.
Garden.
Óleo sobre tabla, 122 × 217 cm.
Colección privada.
Isabel Quintanilla, Roma
Roma
Isabel Quintanilla, 1998–1999.
Rome.
Óleo sobre lienzo pegado a tabla, 135 × 220 cm.
Galerie Brockstedt, Berlin.

Rendering her reality came naturally to Quintanilla; she was earnestly moved by her surroundings. She painted beloved cityscapes and frequented arid landscapes, views of her modest garden or out her window and, above all, views to the inside of her home, and still lifes. But as a woman5—and maybe as a woman firmly interested in capturing the female-coded domestic sphere—Quintanilla had, until recently, garnered far less acclaim in Spain than her male colleagues, namely, Antonio López.6

Yet it is Quintanilla’s corporal and emotional proximity to her subjects that creates the distinctive, palpable intimacy which de Cos has now focalized in this retrospective. “Isabel’s virtuosity comes from a painstaking observation of reality,” she explains, “which is not limited to cold photographic reproduction but rather filled with the emotions that arise during that observation.”7

Isabel Quintanilla, El teléfono
El teléfono
Isabel Quintanilla, 1996.
The Telephone.
Óleo sobre tabla, 110 × 100 cm.
Colección privada, Madrid.

The still life is a major subject of Spanish art history.8 As such, it composed what Quintanilla referred to as a familiar “language,” which she used to “make something new.”9 So, too, did her unwavering loyalty to her light source,10 which epitomizes her extraordinary technical command. Curiously, the still life also holds a place in the history of women in art, according to Thyssen director Guillermo Solana. European women could rely on painting still lifes when barred from depicting naked bodies or historical scenes.11

Quintanilla’s still lifes weave bodies of traditional compositions, fruits and silver platters, among markers of Spanish life, a hanging leg of ham or a whole fish, and autobiographical objects, like her purse, her paint solvents, or the scissors that remind her of her mother, a seamstress.12 She was deeply interested in archeology, recounts Quintanilla’s son Francesco López.13 Perhaps she understood artifacts as individual windows into a small universe.

The notoriously durable glassware may have been modest for a still life, she’d say, but it shaped her reality—and she painted that beauty as it sculpted the light in its glass angles.

Quintanilla painted or drew over fifty glass cups by the French brand Duralex.14 The notoriously durable glassware may have been modest for a still life, she’d say, but it shaped her reality15—and she painted that beauty as it sculpted the light in its glass angles. Brands thus scatter across the exhibition, some admittedly unfamiliar to me but sites of nostalgia for older amblers. Quintanilla shared this distinctly modern trait with fellow Madrid Realists, which stamped their work in space and time and which scholars now relate to their Pop Art contemporaries in the U.S. and U.K.16 If Pop Art’s brand-laden portrait of consumerism spoke of the American way of life, then, to de Cos, “Quintanilla seems a chronicler of the Spanish way of life.17

Isabel Quintanilla, La puerta
La puerta
Isabel Quintanilla, 1974.
The Door.
Óleo sobre lienzo, 56 × 40 cm.
Colección privada.

Meanwhile, Quintanilla’s paintings captured the Spanish experience almost entirely without inhabitants. She abstained from painting people, she once said, because their prescriptive relationships to objects and spaces block audiences from making those connections through memories or imaginations of their own.18 De Cos finds emotion in Quintanilla’s absences, as well: there’s often a sense that someone has recently left the scene, their keys still on the table, or is just outside of view.19 She summons the wonderful example of La puerta (1974), where a doorframe darkens near the latch, a trace of busy human hands over time.20

Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism peers into the house and through the view of one woman, where paintbrushes lay on windowsills above pomegranates and scaffolds dress her neighbor’s backyard, and so conveys the tone, the poverty and pleasures, of a generation. And while some brands may have faded, other things don’t really change, like the heavy glow of Madrid’s summer sun.

Featured image:
Pensamientos sobre la nevera
Isabel Quintanilla, 1972.
Pansies on Top of the Fridge.
Óleo sobre tabla, 41 × 33 cm.
Colección privada.
Cortesía Galería Leandro Navarro, Madrid.

Sources:

  1.  “Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism,” Thyssen-Bornemisza, https://www.museothyssen.org/en/exhibitions/isabel-quintanillas-intimate-realism  ↩︎
  2. Alfredo Boto-Hervás, “El hiperrealismo de Isabel Quintanilla asombra a los amantes de la pintura,” Noticias Antena3.com, 19 May 2024. https://www.antena3.com/noticias/cultura/hiperrealismo-isabel-quintanilla-asombra-amantes-pintura_20240519664a0430bb923a00011113e0.html ↩︎
  3. Leticia De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla: La Emoción Hecha Pintura,” in the catalog Isabel Quintanilla, published by the National Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2024, page 21. ↩︎
  4. Guillermo Solana, “Realistas de Madrid / Conferencia de Guillermo Solana” 19:00 – 25:00. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YSbk79xyho ↩︎
  5. “Quintanilla lived and worked during a period in Spain when women artists lacked the status and recognition accorded to their male counterparts,” “Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism,” Thyssen-Bornemisza, https://www.museothyssen.org/en/exhibitions/isabel-quintanillas-intimate-realism ↩︎
  6. Alicia Vallina, “El realismo de Isabel Quintanilla llega al Thyssen: “Está a la misma altura que su amigo Antonio López”,” El Mundo, 26 February 2024. https://www.elmundo.es/la-lectura/2024/02/26/65cf5ba0e9cf4a9d748b45b4.html; See also Lauren Moya Ford, “Isabel Quintanilla’s Dreamy Realism,” Hyperallergic, May 1, 2024. https://hyperallergic.com/882031/isabel-quintanilla-dreamy-realism-museo-nacional-thyssen-bornemisza-madrid/ and Cecilia Casero, “The Moving Work of Spanish Painter Isabel Quintanilla Gets a Spotlight in Madrid,” Vogue, January 29, 2024. https://www.vogue.com/article/isabel-quintanilla-exhibition-madrid-thyssen-bornemisza ↩︎
  7. De Cos, interview in “El Realismo íntimo de Isabel Quintanilla,” 1:45 – 2:00. (translation available in subtitles). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw-xwLJ0mjQ&t=1 ↩︎
  8. Guillermo Solana, “Madrid Realists” 0:30 – 0:50 https://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssenmultimedia/madrid-realists. ↩︎
  9. Quintanilla paraphrased by De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 23. Translated by the author. ↩︎
  10. Isabel Quintanilla and Leticia de Cos in the video “El Realismo íntimo de Isabel Quintanilla,” 00:00 – 00:55. (translation available in subtitles). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw-xwLJ0mjQ&t=1 ↩︎
  11. Guillermo Solana, “Una Lenta Conquista del Espacio,” in the catalog Realistas de Madrid, published by the National Museum Thyssen- Bornemisza, 2024, page 21. ↩︎
  12. De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 23, 25. ↩︎
  13. Francesco Lopez, in “Recuerdos,” Isabel Quintanilla, 188. ↩︎
  14. De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 21. Translated by the author. ↩︎
  15. Quintanilla cited in de Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 21. ↩︎
  16. De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 21, 53; Guillermo Solana, “Una Lenta Conquista del Espacio,” 18. ↩︎
  17. De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 21. ↩︎
  18. Isabel Quintanilla in “El Realismo íntimo de Isabel Quintanilla,” 3:45 – 4:20. (translation available in subtitles). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw-xwLJ0mjQ&t=1 ↩︎
  19. De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 29; De Cos in “El Realismo íntimo de Isabel Quintanilla,” 3:33 – 3:46. (translation available in subtitles). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw-xwLJ0mjQ&t=1 ↩︎
  20. De Cos, “Isabel Quintanilla,” 31. ↩︎