José Villegas y Cordero was born in Seville in 1844. After his initial training in the studio of the Romantic painter José María Romero, he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts in Seville, before completing his youthful apprenticeship with the history painter Eduardo Cano de la Peña.
This initial training phase was followed by his move to Madrid, where he met the Reus artist Mariano Fortuny, who introduced him not only to genre painting, but also to a bright, clear palette that would become part of his language from then on. In the Spanish capital, José Villegas y Cordero frequented museums, especially the Prado, where he was able to get closer to 17th century painting, even making copies of Velázquez.
His arrival in Rome: success, between Orientalism and genre painting
At the beginning of the 1960s, the painter moved from Spain to Morocco, where he produced Orientalist impressions and oils, which already showed a marked tendency towards bright tones and a vibrant, easy brushstroke, reminiscent of the revolution brought about by Fortuny. This tendency became even more pronounced after he moved to Rome in 1868, the city he chose as his adoptive home and where he stayed for over thirty years.
It was in Rome that the artist enjoyed his most fruitful and brilliant phase: with his history and genre paintings and his Orientalist and costume reconstructions, he won over a vast public of collectors. In his Roman production one not only sees Fortune’s influences, but also Morelli’s evocations, which can be seen in the reproduction of reality, narrated with elegance and verve and through a seductive and varied chromaticism of great technical skill.
In Italy, the artist took part in several national exhibitions. In 1892 he took part in the Naples exhibition with Un monaco e Un doge. In 1895 he was at the 1st Venice Biennial with the history painting Coronation of the Doge Foscari and a Portrait.
The following year he took part in the Festa dell’Arte e dei Fiori in Florence with Doge Faliero sentenced to death, and in 1897 he was at the II Venice Biennale with Portrait of mister Prinotti and The master died.
His paintings in Rome also include The vision, an Orientalist work permeated with Symbolist evocations, as is also the case in Faith. Several of his canvases are conserved at the Prado, including Jacinto Octavio Picòn, Manuel Ortega Morejòn, Self-Portrait and Return of the Flock.
The direction of the Spanish Academy in Rome and the Prado in Madrid
In his studio in the Parioli district, artists from the Spanish colony in Rome, as well as patrons, collectors and Italian artists met, demonstrating a full appreciation not only of José Villegas as a painter, but also as a scholar. His appointment as director of the Spanish Academy in Rome from 1898 to 1901 was no coincidence.
At the end of this assignment, he returned to Madrid and was called to direct the Prado, the museum that had inspired him so much in his youth. Although he continued to paint, at the beginning of the 20th century, he was deeply involved in his role as director, making numerous innovations, especially in terms of exhibitions and teaching, with the aim of enhancing the Prado’s collection and expanding it with new acquisitions.
In terms of painting, he continued to focus on historical and genre subjects, but also won a large number of collectors with his work as a portrait painter. Still active, he died in Madrid in 1921 at the age of 77.