How Balenciaga was inspired by the Old Masters

Christie’s Old Masters specialist Jonquil O’Reilly and curator Eloy Martínez de la Pera tour Balenciaga and Spanish Painting in Madrid and discuss the influence of Old Master paintings on the iconic designer’s creations

Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), described by Christian Dior as ‘the master of us all’, was one of the most admired and influential fashion designers of all time.

Balenciaga’s radical designs were characterised by their striking simple-line silhouettes, offering women in post-war Europe an alternative to the nipped in waists and full skirts propagated by Dior’s celebrated 1947 ‘New Look’. One such example is Balenciaga's outlandish 1955 ‘Envelope dress’, which saw the Spanish designer striving for complete abstraction, obliterating any nuance of shapely form.

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(Left) Rodrigo de Villandrando (1588-1623) Isabel de Borbón, wife of Philip IV, circa 1620. Oil on canvas. 201 x 115 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. © Archivo Fotográfico Museo Nacional del Prado (Right) Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) wedding dress, silk shantung embroidered with silver thread. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga © Jon Cazenave 

Balenciaga’s creations were often made from heavy, luxurious fabrics and enriched with handmade embroidery, rhinestones and sequins. Unsurprisingly, they attracted a glamorous global clientele and frenzied interest from the world’s press.

Balenciaga and Spanish Painting  (18 June- 22 Sept), a fabulous new exhibition at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, takes a look at the art historical influences on the fashion great’s celebrated creations. The designer constantly studied the history of art and made use of the imagery he found, from the minimalist lines of religious habits to the black-on-black aesthetic of Habsburg court dress.

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(Left) Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) Fray Francisco Zúmel, circa 1628. Oil on canvas. 193 x 122 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid (Right) Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) wedding dress, satin and mink. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria. © Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga © Jon Cazenave 

Curated by Eloy Martínez de la Pera, the show brings together for the first time 90 Balenciaga garments and 55 Spanish paintings from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The collection of paintings, drawn from major museums and private collections across Spain, is presented in chronological order alongside the Balenciaga dresses each appears to have inspired.

The rooms in the exhibition are dedicated to a major Spanish painter or genre that influenced Balenciaga, from El Greco and Spanish Court Painting to Francisco de Zurbarán and Francisco de Goya. The exhibition also pays particular homage to black, one of Balenciaga’s favourite colours, and to the historical significance of line and form.

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(Left) Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbón y Vallabriga, circa 1800. Oil on canvas. 214 x 136 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (Antigua colección del marqués de Casa Torres) © Archivo Fotográfico Museo Nacional del Prado (Right) Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) Dress and jacket outfit, satin dress, satin jacket with metallic thread, sequins and ceramic beads. Museo del Traje, Madrid. Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte © Jon Cazenave 

In our video, Christie’s Old Master Specialist Jonquil O’Reilly and Eloy Martínez de la Pera tour the exhibition and discuss the relationship between some of the major pairings currently on show in Madrid.

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Balenciaga and Spanish Painting, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 18 June–22 September

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