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Special relationship brings Goya masterpieces to MFA

Goya’s “Ferdinand Guillemardet’’ was inspected for damage after its arrival in Boston from Paris.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Goya’s “Ferdinand Guillemardet’’ was inspected for damage after its arrival in Boston from Paris.

MADRID — Just before lunch, on a sunny October day in 2012, a contingent from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts arrived at a downtown flat in the Spanish capital to meet Diego del Alcazar Silvela, also known as the 10th Marquis of la Romana. They came for his Goyas.

He has eight in all, a series purchased in the early 19th century directly from the Spanish master. The paintings hang in clusters on his living room walls: striking images of war and despair, painted between 1808 and 1810.

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And while the marquis, 64, is a charming host, runs an internationally renowned business school, and often visits the United States, his paintings rarely, if ever, leave those walls.

“There are so many demands,” he said earlier this year, sitting in his living room across from his prized art. “But you are inclined to do it only when you find it makes sense.”

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That day, after offering sherry and slices of Spanish ham, del Alcazar listened as the MFA’s group — director Malcolm Rogers and curators Stephanie Stepanek and Frederick Ilchman — explained why an ambitious exhibition they were planning of works by Francisco Goya, one of Spain’s greatest artists, needed his paintings. He was impressed. It didn’t hurt that they had brought with them Manuela B. Mena Marqués, the high-profile Goya expert at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado. In the end, del Alcazar agreed to send two paintings overseas for the MFA’s much-anticipated exhibit “Goya: Order and Disorder,” which opens next Sunday.

With 170 works — 99 on loan and 71 from the MFA’s extensive collection — this is the largest Goya exhibition in North America in a quarter-century. And the Prado, which boasts the largest and most important Goya collection in the world, has sent 21 works for the exhibition, including seven that have never been seen in the United States.

It is no accident that such an important show is at the MFA, and not New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The Spanish loans for “Order and Disorder” shed light on a key relationship the museum has had with its counterpart in Spain, and in large part through Mena. Her connection to Boston, which began 40 years ago over lunch with renowned MFA curator Eleanor Sayre, has led to each institution loaning important works over the years, works that might not otherwise move so freely.

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“It’s definitely a special relationship,” said Ilchman, chair of the MFA’s Art of Europe department and cocurator of “Order and Disorder.” “It might have started personally but then it becomes an institutional priority.”

The relationship works both ways. According to the MFA, since 2003, the Prado has loaned 39 works to the Boston museum, and the MFA has loaned 23 to the Prado, including, in 2010, one of its best-known masterpieces, John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.”

It is unlikely any of these exchanges would have been made without Sayre, a granddaughter of Woodrow Wilson who became a pioneer — an influential museum curator at a time when women rarely held leadership positions anywhere. In 1945, after studying at Harvard University and working at the Yale University Art Gallery, Sayre started at the MFA as assistant curator of prints and drawings. By 1967, she had become head of the department. She also became an expert on Goya.

That work took her often to Madrid, where she studied works in the Prado’s collection and developed relationships with scholars and museum leaders. In 1974, while still a student, Mena took a suggestion from a professor that she meet Sayre. Over lunch at the Ritz in Madrid, they began a friendship that led Mena to move to Boston to apprentice at the MFA. Sayre didn’t just help guide the young curator professionally. When an apartment fire forced Mena out of her home, she stayed with Sayre.

The MFA curator also made a lasting impact on the Prado. In an essay Mena wrote after Sayre’s death in 2001, she recounted how her mentor persuaded the Prado to remove its prized collection of Goya drawings from the sun-drenched galleries in the museum’s top floor. The works were being damaged by light. Instead, the prints were placed in storage and rotated into display. The Spanish government later honored Sayre for her work in helping both to preserve the drawings and to stop the sale of an important Goya painting whose export the Spanish government had opposed.

Goya, who died in 1828, is considered a key figure linking the Old Masters to a later generation of artists that included Picasso and Manet.

Though he worked as a court painter in Spain, he also documented some of the darkest images of his time: the poor, the sick, and the victims of war. His nightmarish late “Black Paintings,” painted on plaster walls, were transferred to canvas a half-century after his death and put on display at the Prado. Those works never travel.

Mena, now the chief curator of 18th-century paintings at the Prado, was eager to work with Sayre’s successors when they began to plot out their Goya show. She knew the museum would need her help in getting some of its loans.

“Every show I’ve done with Goya is like a battle against the impossible,” she said in her office earlier this year, thumbing through a copy of the show’s catalog. “That’s true even here, at the Prado, which is a word that opens the doors everywhere. With the owners, it’s not a question of money. It’s a question of psychology. You find the weak part in the brain and then you shoot the arrow.”

Del Alcazar was one important target. The MFA made another key visit that October afternoon, just a few Metro stops from the Prado.

The Museo Lazaro Galdiano is a house museum founded by a Spanish financier in 1903. Many compare it with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum because of its cozy charm and small but priceless collection of works, including paintings by El Greco, Velazquez, and Bosch.

The focus that day: Goya’s “Witches’ Sabbath.”

The painting is stunning, its detailed brushwork showing the devil as a horned goat standing in the midst of a circle of grotesque conjurers. “Witches’ Sabbath” is rarely removed from the wall.

“There are some iconic pieces in the museum,” said Carmen Espinosa, the Lazaro Galdiano’s chief curator, through a translator. “It can not be filled with anything else.”

So when the MFA contingent arrived, Espinosa didn’t just say yes. She thought about how the work could help her museum.

“We are a small institution,” she said. “It is difficult to get loans.”

The MFA understood that language. Without delay, it put together a list of prized works in its own collection that could be offered in a trade. Espinosa made her choice. Starting in July, a Van Gogh painting from the MFA, “Enclosed Field with Ploughman,” went on display at the Lazaro Galdiano.

A new relationship had been created.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@mac.com.
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