London Top Destinations

Europe’s Small House Museums

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and other idiosyncratic house museums in Europe yield pleasures beyond their size

Library dining room of the Sir John Soane Museum (Martin Charles / Sir John Soane Museum)
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From 1911 to 1923, this Andalusian-style house was the residence of one of the world's best-known artists. Born to a humble family in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla kept his distance from Europe's avant-garde movements but won international fame for his subtle technique, evoking the play of sunshine in his scenes of Mediterranean beaches and images of Spanish daily life.

Stepping into the seductive confines of the compound, where Sorolla lived with his wife and three children, is like entering one of the artist's luminous paintings. With its Moorish flourishes, tranquil pools and ever-present sound of flowing water, the garden was the place where he most loved to paint. When I visited, Sorolla's private Arcadia was filled with earnest art students experimenting with watercolors in shady corners. Tiled steps lead up to the house, whose first rooms display his works, just as they did 80 years ago for potential buyers. The home's living spaces contain the family's original Art Nouveau furniture and Tiffany lamps. But the emotional core of the house is Sorolla's studio, a large vaulted room painted a rosy red and suffused with sunshine. Sorolla's easels stand ready, as if he had just left for a siesta; his palettes, brushes and half-used paint tubes are close by. A small Turkish bed occupies one corner of the room and a book of 16th-century songs sits open on a stand. A drawing Sorolla made of Velázquez's famous portrait of Pope Innocent X presides over all.

Sorolla moved into the house, which he had built, in 1911, at the high point of his career. By then he had exhibited his work from London to St. Louis, Missouri, had been showered with international awards, befriended intellectuals and artists, including John Singer Sargent, painted the portrait of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and U.S. President William Howard Taft and, under the patronage of railroad-fortune heir Archer Huntington, had been commissioned to paint a vast mural in the Hispanic Society of America in New York City.

After his death at 60 in 1923, Sorolla's international reputation suffered, overshadowed by the work of Post-Impressionists such as Cézanne and Gauguin. As with his friend Sargent, many critics decided that Sorolla was too conservative and commercial. But in Madrid, Sorolla's artistic standing has never been shaken, and since its opening by his widow and son in 1931, the Museo Sorolla, which also houses the most extensive collection of his works in the world, has enjoyed a steady stream of pilgrims. Today, their faith is being vindicated; Sorolla is being reevaluated by critics, who are placing him as a bridge between Spanish old masters such as Velázquez and Goya and the Post-Impressionists. In 2006, Madrid's prestigious Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum hosted "Sargent/Sorolla," an exhibition tracking the parallel careers of the pair.

At the Museo Sorolla, as in all house museums, a chord of melancholy intrudes: the artist, we learn, was painting a portrait in his beloved garden in 1920 when, at the age of 57, he suffered a stroke. Although he lived for another three years, he produced little new work. But such gloomy meditations do not suit the house, or the sensual spirit of modern Madrid. The best solution—as Sorolla himself would likely have agreed—is to head to a nearby café to sip a glass of vino blanco and bask in the Spanish sun.

The Black Madonna House: The Museum of Czech Cubism

Unscathed by two world wars, the heart of Prague feels like a fantasy of Old Europe. Gothic spires frame Art Nouveau cafés, and on the Medieval Astronomical Clock, next door to Franz Kafka's childhood home in the Old Town Square, a statue of Death still pulls the bell cord to strike the hour. But if you turn down a Baroque street called Celetna, you confront a very different aspect of the city—the stark and surprising Black Madonna House, one of the world's first Cubist buildings and home today to the Museum of Czech Cubism. Designed by Prague architect Josef Gocar, the House was shockingly modern, even revolutionary, when it opened as a department store in 1912—and it still seems so today. The overall shape is appropriately boxlike and predictably austere, but on closer inspection the facade is broken up by the inventive use of angles and planes. Large bay windows protrude like quartz crystals, and angular ornamentation casts subtle shadows. The interior is no less unusual, with the city's first use of reinforced concrete allowing for the construction of generous open spaces. The House's peculiar name comes from the 17th-century statue of the Black Madonna and Child rescued from a previous structure on the site and now perched like a figurehead on one corner of the building.

But not even the Madonna could protect the House from the vagaries of Czech history. Following World War II and the Communists' rise to power, the department store was gradually gutted and divided into office space. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule, the building had a brief life as a cultural center, but it was only in 2003 that it found its logical role in the fabric of Prague—as a shrine to the glories of Czech Cubism.

Most of us think of Cubism as an esoteric avant-garde movement advanced by Parisian artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and others in the years before World War I. But the movement swept across Europe and was embraced in Russian and Eastern European capitals as well—nowhere more avidly than in Prague, where Cubism was seized upon, if only for an incandescent moment, as a possible key to the future.

"In Paris, Cubism only affected painting and sculpture," says Tomas Vlcek, director of the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art at the country's National Gallery, which oversees the Museum of Czech Cubism. "Only in Prague was Cubism adapted to all the other branches of the visual arts—furniture, ceramics, architecture, graphic design, photography. So Cubism in Prague was a grand experiment, a search for an all-encompassing modern style that could be distinctively Czech."

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