Isabel Quintanilla’s Intimate Realism

Drop everything.

It was a mad idea to fly to Madrid from London for just one day. But this was a rare opportunity. A solo exhibition of the work of Isabel Quintanilla (1938–2017), a key figure in contemporary realism.

Perched just across from the Prado, the Thyssen – Bornemisza Museum houses a permanent collection of works from old masters through to impressionism, pop, modernism and beyond. Full of surprises and not too overwhelming, this beautiful mid-sized gallery is perfect for a half- day visit.

London fog almost scuttled that plan.

The mild weather of Madrid in March was a warm welcome. The Swiss industrialist who drove the formation of this collection during the twentieth century spent much of his life here. You may know Baron Thyssen as Lucian Freud’s Man in a Chair, 1982–85. He gifted 775 works to Spain in 1993.

Isabel Quintanilla, Bowl of Fruit, 1966, 29 × 38cm

Looking slowly.

A change of pace as I reach the gallery. The entry tickets are timed and I have rung twice today to speak with very helpful staff to postpone my entry. There is a short queue and finally it’s time to see.

Works in the exhibition are hung according to theme. Two still life paintings sit next to each other. Bowl of Fruit was painted in 1966, after Quintanilla’s time in Rome where she admired the frescoes. Next to it hangs Still life with Sienna Background, 2017, painted in the year she died. The first is thinly painted, with a clarity and uniformity of texture akin to Flemish still life. The second work is more thickly worked; visible brushstrokes evoke the soft and fleshy surfaces of the fruit.

This is not an unusual transition for an artist. It is probably more remarkable to consider what has stayed with Quintanilla across the decades. Her concerns were consistent. It mattered to depict an object faithfully, to wrest a tangible convincing form from her palette in lively colour. Space might be flattened for compositional structure but still she required it to appear feasible, to reconcile pattern and depth with no loss of presence.

Isabel Quintanilla, Homage to my Mother, 1971, oil on panel, 74 × 100cm

Looking inward.

Intimate realism is the title of the show and it’s a focus that fits the best of these works. The enclosed courtyard, the inner room – this is where Quintanilla’s strength lies. It is here that she excels in evoking a contemplative pause, an extended moment that is never dull and that becomes richer with looking.

How big should a painting be? The scale of Quintanilla’s paintings relates very directly to what she is depicting. She usually paints at “sight size”. The sewing machine in Tribute to my Mother, 1971, appears about the right size if you were standing in front of one. As a result, many of the paintings are quite large. This is an artistic decision, not a necessity. You might consider an artist such as Vermeer whose inner rooms are depicted on small canvases. Quintanilla’s choice to paint large works places the viewer almost in the room, you feel you could reach out and pick up her depicted telephone.

You wouldn’t be disturbing anyone – Quintanilla’s interiors are, with rare exceptions, empty of the human figure. No one here is reading a letter, pouring milk or flirting with a cavalier. Empty, and hence very quiet. Yet not abandoned. Someone is coming back to finish sewing, to turn off that lamp, to shut that drawer. Everywhere there are symptoms an activity has been paused. Doors ajar create an expectancy of return.

Isabel Quintanilla: Intimate Realism, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, 27 February – 2 June 2024

Looking outward.

Several landscape works are included in the exhibition, usually from an elevated viewpoint featuring a broad sweeping view. Less interesting than the more intimate subjects, I get the feeling the artist is not at home. Landscape painting requires a generality quite opposed to the tactility of near objects set in proximal space. One can’t paint every leaf. Quintanilla’s landscapes feel a little foreign to her metier.

I include some of the drawings here, although I must caution that it is really impossible to see these via photographic reproduction. The delicacy of mark and subtle transitions in tone are lost in translation.

If you would take my word for it, Quintanilla’s drawings are amongst her very best work. Less sombre than many of her paintings, and shifted a further step from actuality by the absence of colour, they are almost dreamlike evocations, more like a memory than a place.

Looking ahead.

I’m grateful to have seen this show, it is a gift to artists endeavouring to work within the structure and history of realism. For some of us, the visual world will always be an irresistible muse, compelling a response beyond transcription.
Quintanilla and her colleagues in the Madrid Realist group set the bar very high.

Alexandra Sasse, March 2024

Isabel Quintanilla, Dusk in the studio (detail), 1975, 122 × 139cm


Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
27 February to 2 June 2024
Madrid, Spain

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