The Great Day of Girona
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|Artist||Ramon Martí Alsina|
|Year||Date completed: 1863-64|
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||496 cm × 1082 cm (16 ft 3 in × 35 ft 6 in)|
|Location||Museu d'Art de Girona, Girona|
The Great Day of Girona, originally and in Catalan El gran dia de Girona (Catalan pronunciation: [əɫ ˈɣɾan ˈdi.ə ðə ʒiˈɾonə]), is a large oil painting (4.96 × 10.82 m) by Ramon Martí Alsina. It is the largest easel painting in the history of Catalan art. The creation process lasted more than 10 years and was about to bring the artist to his ruin on several occasions. It is now part of the collection of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and is exhibited on deposit at the Girona premises of the Catalan Government, in the church of the former Hospital of Santa Caterina.
Due to the spectacular size of the work, scholars suggest that it may have been an effort to compete with Marià Fortuny's Battle of Tetuan, a work commissioned by the council of Barcelona regarding the War of Africa.
In 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, the painting was damaged during a bombardment whilst on exhibition in the Palau de les Belles Arts (Palace of the Fine Arts). To protect it from further damage, the work was rolled up and placed in one of the storage areas in the National Museum of Art (MNAC). It was some 70 years after its deposit that the painting was finally restored; between the years of 2009 and 2010.
During the middle of the nineteenth century History Painting was highly regarded for its depictions of local heroes and patriotic events. Martí Alsina wanted to improve his reputation as a painter on a national level, despite the fact that he was already a lecturer at the Escola de Llotja, Barcelona. One of the most direct ways of earning a professional reputation at the time was to win a competition, like that of the Exposició Nacional de Belles Arts, which was celebrated annually in Madrid. In these competitions, works of historical subject matter with a high Epic and Romantic content generally received a good reception. In the year 1667 André Felibien, historian and theoretician of French Classicism created a hierarchy of pictorial themes, giving first place to historical painting in his prologue of the ‘Conferències de l’Acadèmia’.
The first time that Martí Alsina participated in the competition was in the year 1858, in which he sent several works and was awarded a third class medal for a piece titled ‘Estudi del Natural’ (‘Study of Nature’). The same year the artist presented a work outside of the competition 'L’últim dia de Numància'(‘The Last Days of Numantia’), which would later be bought by the state for a total of 3,000 pesetas and given to the Prado Museum, despite the artist having been recognised with only a third class medal. In 1860 the artist sent one of his landscapes to the 'Exposició Nacional de Belles Arts' and was awarded a second class medal for the painting.
However, the painter spent most of his life obsessed with themes such as ‘Guerra del Frànces’ Peninsular War and the ‘Siege of Girona, 1809’, realising works such as ‘El somatent del Bruch’, ‘La Companyia de Santa Bàrbara’('The Company of Saint Barbara'), ‘Les heroïnes de Girona’('The heroines of Girona'), and the grandest of all 'Él gran dia De Girona’('The Great Day of Girona'), which took the painter most of his life and right up until his death to complete.
According to several published studies, it is possible that Martí Alsina decided to undertake this work of great dimensions in order to rival ‘The Battle of Tetuan’ by Marià Fortuny, a work which was commissioned by the council of Barcelona and which achieved considerable success on a European level. Martí Alsina located a large studio space('Casino de Sants')in order to accommodate the scale of his project. The premises is believed to have been situated in building number 300 of the high street in the neighbourhood of Sants, an address consistent with the documentation of the work in 1882. The artist brought all types of armour, weapons and historical objects to the studio in order to achieve the highest degree of standard in his work. He also required dozens of models, which he dressed in purpose-made costumes for the occasion. As well as this, Martí Alsina visited Girona repeatedly, as can be observed from the hundreds of surviving sketches he made of the city; some of which are today in private collections and others in the National Museum of Art Catalonia (MNAC) and the Museum of Art Girona. The first attempts to start the painting went underway in 1859, confirmed by a letter sent to Martí Alsina from Girona dated to the 14th of October of the same year. The letter is a response to information solicited by the artist regarding flags and other details that would be included in the work – as the painter wished the final result to be as realistic as possible.
Due to the fact that the painter ordered a frame for the work to be made in March 1864, it is believed that his intention was to send the work to the competition of the Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid ('Exposició Nacional de Belles Arts')of the same year. However, when the artist received critical comments from friends regarding the piece, he decided instead to continue working on the canvas. He never got to sign the finished work. The project in which Martí Alsina had inverted so much time and effort, personal and economic, would be a failure - in the sense that during the artist’s lifetime it would never leave his studio.
Years later, the artist would take advantage of some of the research material and sketches accumulated in order to create two works relating to the siege of Girona; ‘Heroines of Girona’, which was displayed in the 1868 ‘Society of Exhibitions of the Fine Arts, Barcelona’(‘Sociedad para Exposiciones de Bellas Artes, Barcelona'); and ‘The Company of Saint Barbara’, which was sent to the 1891 exhibition of the Palace of Fine Arts (Palau de les Belles Arts).
Several personal documents confirm that the artist gave the 'Great Day of Girona' away to guarantee a debt of 20,000 pesetas he owed to a Mr. Pau Borrell. As the painter was not able to settle the loan, Borrell assumed temporary ownership of the work. It wasn't until 1894 that Martí Alsina came to an agreement with the heirs of Borrell and succeeded in regaining ownership of the work for the exchange of fourteen others.
An article published during the time in 'El Divulio' claims that the artist subsequently attempted to sell the work to the City Council of Barcelona for a sum of 15,000 pesetas.
Although its most common title, and that found in the catalogue of MNAC, ‘The Great Day of Girona’ is at times referred to as ‘The Defenders of Girona’. It was Colonel Blas de Fournàs who described the events of 19 September 1809, during which over 1,000 people died as ‘the great day of Girona’ and it is believed that this may be the origin of the title. In some of Martí Alsina’s personal documents, however, the piece has been referred to as ‘The Defenders of Girona’ and even, ‘The Painting of Girona’.
Joan Nepomucè Font i Sangrà, a private collector and enthusiast of Martí Alsina´s work, acquired ‘The Great Day of Girona’ after the artist’s death. The same year of its acquisition, 1894, the collector offered the work to the city council of Barcelona so it could be exhibited in the Exhibition of Fine Arts (l'Éxposició de Belles Arts) of the same year. The work, however, was not exhibited until the year 1898, as part of an exhibition organised to display works of deceased artists. After this exhibition the work remained deposited in the Hall of Queen Regent in the Museum of Fine Arts, Barcelona (Museu Munincipal de Belles Arts de Barcelona).
The canvas was later transferred to the Museum of Decorative Arts and Archaeology (Museu d’Arts Decoratives i Arqueològic), where it would remain in storage. In 1904, the work was still in storage, which sparked Font i Sangrà to question whether it was due to a lack of exhibition space or location that caused the work to remain unseen (‘si per manca de local no pot ser exposada') to which Carles Bofarull, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, made a reported statement;
Comunicació del Director dels Museus de Belles Arts a la Junta de Museus, 16-8-1904
In 1905 Font i Sangrà reclaimed his painting. Due to its huge dimensions he decided to hang it in a chapel, extended for the occasion, of his personal property in Cardadeu; ‘Ca n’Eres Vall’. The collector kept the bulk of his personal collection at his home at number 38 Ronda de Sant Pere. Nevertheless, ‘The Great Day of Girona’ became somewhat of a tourist attraction in Cardadeu, as Font i Sagrà took pleasure in showing the work to all who came to see it.
After some negotiation the painting finally became property of the City Council of Barcelona as a legacy, accepted on the 18th of June 1929. The painting was subsequently incorporated in the collection of the Palace of Fine Arts (Palau de les Belles Arts) and put on permanent display in the Hall of Queen Regent. When the Museum of Art of Catalonia was created in 1934, many of the works from the Palace of Fine Arts were transferred to the National Palace; however those of bigger measurements like ‘The Great Day of Girona’ remained in the Palace of Fine Arts.
In 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, the Palace of the Fine Arts was used as a location for meetings and conferences. During the summer of the same year, the building was victim to a bombardment which destroyed the roof of this glass structured building. The destruction caused damage to the painting including cracks extending over five meters.
Once the war was ended it was decided that until the work could be restored, due to its extraordinary size, it would be rolled-up and stored for its protection at the Museum of National Art, Catalonia. The restoration of the piece did not commence until 2009.
The Restoration Process
To mark the bicentenary of the French War and the 1809 Siege of Girona, the Museum of Art, Girona and the historian Maria Lluïsa Faxedas conceived the idea to mount a commemorative exhibition. ‘The Great Day of Girona’ was requested on loan from MNAC, however the work needed to undergo restoration before being exhibited. The project was a joint effort between MNAC, the Department of Culture of the government of Catalonia and the Museum of Art, Girona. It was financed by the foundation ‘Caixa Girona’. Until this point, the painting had been stored in one of the reserves of the museum for over seventy years, except for a small intervention in 1998, when the work was rolled-out and photographed during a translation of the piece between the internal reserves of the museum.
On 14 September 2009, a team of experts from MNAC and the ‘Centre de Restauració de Bens Mobles de Catalunya’ (CRBMC), under the direction of Mireia Mestre, Míria Pedragosa and Maite Tomeu, began to roll-out the canvas for its inspection in the Oval Hall of the National Palace, Barcelona.
Throughout a period of three days an organoleptic examination of the piece was undertaken before it was prepared for its translation to the CRBMC in Valldoreix.
During the organoleptic examination, which included a study of both the front and back of the canvas, macroscopic and microscopic observations of the materials were made and samples were taken in order to carry out various physical and chemical analysis of the painting.
The painting was also photographed using several techniques such as photography with ultraviolet light and transillumination. Further to studying the physical state of the work, research was also undertaken regarding the reserves of the museum and works by artists of the same period; in order to make relevant comparisons to the case of ‘The Great Day of Girona’.
Due to the peculiarity of the great dimensions of the work, it was saved from more invasive restoration procedures, such as a relining or a general varnishing; techniques that up until recently were common in the practice in the restoration and conservation of art works.
Restoration in Valldoreix
During the restoration, a first of its kind in Catalan history due to the scale of the work, Martí Alsina’s own manuscripts and images of the painting (before its damage in 1938), were used as references throughout the process. Before commencing the restoration, the necessary physicochemical studies were undertaken; an analysis of samples of primer, paint and varnish and the taking of reflectographies. The analysis of the canvas material was undertaken in collaboration with the Technical Centre of Spinning (‘el Centre Tècnic de Filatura) of the Polytechnic University in Barcelona.
Throughout the entire restoration project, the work was documented and photographed and its progression reported in the media.
According to examination, the preparatory layer of the painting was made from a mixture of white led barium sulfate and calcium carbonate. The fabric of the canvas had a large tear, nearly seven feet long, which was fixed by means of suturing, thread by thread, using a mixture of sturgeon glue and wheat starch. Each process during the restoration was realised according to a criteria of minimum intervention. The restoration process began with the reverse side of the canvas, dividing the tasks into several phases, due to the peculiarity of working with a piece of such large dimensions. Consolidation techniques were used which involved the minimum incorporation of materials. A special adhesive was made using sturgeon glue and wheat starch. The cleaning of the painted surface of the canvas was conducted in two phases; the first phase consisted in cleaning the particles of dust that had accumulated on the surface of the work. The second phase involved removing any dirt that had become attached to the surface of the piece using a gel solution. After this procedure any polychrome losses were replaced by applying putty made from ground calcite (also known as ‘blanc d’Espanya’) and rabbit-skin glue. The restoration of ‘the Great Day of Girona’ is considered an exceptional project due to the application of criteria and the use of innovative techniques and has become a benchmark of restoration work throughout Spain.
Installation in Girona
The work was finally installed on 14 September 2010 in the Josep Irla Auditorium of the Old Hospital of Santa Caterina, Girona, where it had been moved to directly from the restoration centre in Valldoreix.
The work was transported in a truck and unloaded by a team of eight handlers, under the supervision of a team of restorers and professionals associated with the restoration project. In order to ensure the correct handling of the piece, the construction company ‘Chassitech’ were hired to create a metallic structure, a double railed anodized aluminum frame with wooden profiles, designed to facilitate future maintenance of the painting. The staff at the Museum of Art, Girona, assumed responsibility for the climate control of the painting's new environment, ensuring that the lighting levels did not exceed 150–200 lux. Between the 14 and 16 September the work hung from the aluminum structure and, a few days after its installation, the Great Day of Girona was presented to the press. The inauguration of its exhibition took place on 23 October 2010. During 2012, Google Art Project, together with MNAC, chose the painting to be photographed as part of the collection of their online platform.
It is a work of great dimensions (446 × 1082 cm), greater than the Battle of Tetuan by Fortuny (300 × 972 cm) and Guernica by Pablo Picasso. The painting was realised on one single piece of canvas cloth, without the use of seams, and weighs approximately 70 kg. Textile experts believe that it may be the same type of fabric used in the production of boat sails. Some other studies suggest that the fabric may have been acquired in Maresme or Poblenou, where the artist had another workshop.
The work portrays the aftermath of the battle which took place on 19 September 1809, during the Peninsular War, when the invading army tried one final attack against the city of Girona - an attack resisted on the orders of General Álvarez de Castro.
The painting depicts the location where the events occurred, confirmed by the architecture located in the background of the canvas; where the towers belonging to the Cathedral of Girona and the church of St. Felix can be seen. In front of these buildings the artist painted the walls of the city and the zone of Gironella Tower. The preparatory drawings also indicate that Martí Alsina chose to depict the battle scene in the area of ‘La caserna dels Alemanys’ (the headquarters’ of the Germans) in order to obtain a classical profile of the city of Girona and, simultaneously depict a location where other important battles had taken place during the siege.
Although stylistically Martí Alsina is commonly compared to Courbet and realism (a movement which the painter introduced to Catalonia), the ‘Great Day of Girona’, it is thought to be closer to the style of Romanticism, like that of Delacroix or Vernet. The painting's genre is seen not just to pertain to historical paintings but those of an epic historical nature.
There is a resemblance between Martí Alsina’s pictorial composition and that of French Historical painter Horace Vernes in the inclusion of many figures. Both artists also produced a great quantity of preliminary sketches, from different perspectives, in order to achieve the mass use of figures effectively in their final work.
Martí Alsina had visited a retrospective exhibition organised as part of the Universal Exhibition of 1855, where there were historical paintings by Vernet, Ingres, Delacroix and Alexandre Gabriel Decamps.
The work is divided into three planes, the figures to the foreground of the work being the most realistic and dramatic and treated with more lively colours. The figures depicted in the middle ground of the work are less defined and those in the background are only suggested and seem to fade into the architecture as if in a fog.
The scenes depicted to the right hand side of the work are arranged in a pyramid shape, with the apex situated in the ruins of the background of the picture plane. The left hand side of the pyramid is formed by the entrenched defenders and forms a line which cuts the entire space of the work in a diagonal line and which allows the focus of attention to be on the military figures, despite their placement in the middle plane of the work.
The group of figures situated in the left hand side of the work, are formed by the last line of defenders of the city, with the General Alvarez de Castro portrayed in a very prominent position.
The arrangement of the composition of the work is similar to that of Vernet’s ‘Battle of Somosierra’ of 1812, where the mountain in the background frames the figures on horseback and creates a competition of importance with the wounded figures of the foreground.
The bottom section of the ‘Great Day of Girona’ or, the foreground of the battle, the wounded and dead are depicted, bringing the maximum realism to the most dramatic images of the canvas. One of the figures, situated at the centre of the composition, below the figure of the General, represents the same type of female figure as found in another one of Martí Alsina’s works ‘The Company of Saint Barbara’; it is a female figure typical of military bodies, who assist the wounded in battle. She wears a red ribbon tied in a loop on her left arm, distinguishing the woman as an aid. More of these similar female aid-figures can be observed in the composition – some helping the injured and others distributing food and drink.
At the extreme right of the work the retreating French Army can be seen, the figures blurred to such an extent that they avoid important presence in the composition.
The painting has only been exhibited publically in two different locations. The first location was the Palace of Fine Arts in Barcelona, when in 1898 it was shown as part of an exhibition which paid homage to recently deceased artists. When the exhibition finished, the work was returned to the deposits of the museum for some time. Later the work was returned to its owner and in 1929 it finally became property of the Board of Museums of the City Council of Barcelona. It then became part of the catalogued works of the collection and was hung on permanent display in the Hall of Queen Regent
Since 8 June 2011 the History Museum of Girona has displayed one of Martí Alsina’s preparatory drawings for the ‘Great Day of Girona’.
The Anatomy of a Painting
Following the restoration and translation of the painting, an exhibition was held titled ‘Ramon Martí Alsina. The Great Day of Girona. Anatomy of a Painting’, which took place between 23 October 2010 and 29 May 2011, in three locations in Girona. The exhibition was organised by the Museum of Art Girona in collaboration with MNAC and was curated by Maria Lluïsa Faxedas, professor at the University of Girona and an expert on the subject.
The objective of the exhibition was to investigate the motives the painter had for realising the work. The exhibition was divided between three locations;
- Josep Irla Auditorium: situated in the government of Girona, it is the definitive space where the painting is exhibited
- Plenary Hall of the Council of Girona: permanent exhibition space of the ‘Heroines of Girona’, another work by Martí Alsina
- Museum of Art Girona: exhibition of sketches and preparatory drawings based on the work
The subject matter of the siege of Girona had been treated by several artists on several occasions and various versions of the theme exist;
- In the Museum of Art Girona ‘The Siege of Girona 1809’or, ‘Study for the Great Day of Girona’(1860) exists, which is a reduced version of the painting (47 x 84.5 cm), painted and signed by Martí Alsina.
- César Álvarez Dumont (Portugal 1866 – Malaga 1945), the artist painted his own version of the siege in 1890. The piece has the same title as Marti Asian’s work; ‘The Great Day of Girona’ and is currently in the collection of the Prado, Madrid.
- Laureà Barrau painted the ‘Surrender of Girona, 1809’ (Rome, 1884), which is currently part of a private collection in Girona.
- Número d'inventari 012084-000
- DDAA, 2011, p. 19
- Reyero / Freixa, 1995, p. 182
- DDAA, 2011, p. 116
- Folch i Torres, 1920, p. 75–77
- Triadó, 1990, p. 551–555
- Chillón, 2010, p. 70–71
- Guasch, 1994, p. 138–139
- DDAA, 2011, p. 119
- Boronat, 1999, p. 298–299
- Google Art ofereix en detall més de 30.000 obres, entre les quals ´El gran dia de Girona'
- Chillón, 2010, p. 247
- Chillón, 2010, p. 335
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