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Spanish Acquisitions

Algur Meadows was the quintessential Texas oil baron. After making a fortune in black gold in Texas, he was granted exclusive rights to explore in Spain, where he began to put his money where his passion was: Spanish art. Meadows amassed one of the most i
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Last September we accompanied the Meadows Foundation to Barcelona where they unveiled 27 masterpieces from their collection of Spanish art—one of the art world’s best-kept secrets.

The terrazzo-tiled lobby of the Museu Nacional d’art de Catalunya in Barcelona is packed wall to wall with feverish art lovers decked out in everything from Birkenstocks and backpacks to sequined gowns. John Lunsford, director of the Meadows Museum at SMU, along with the mayor of Barcelona and city and provincial officials, waits on a rise of stairs to be introduced by Museu curator Margarita Cuyas. One by one, dignitaries praise Meadows’ willingness to loan 27 important pieces from its permanent collection of Spanish art while architects put the finishing touches on its new $25 million home on the grounds of SMU.

Four years ago, the Meadows board of directors and its committees, liberally salted with Meadows family members, decided to build a new showcase to honor founder and oilman, Algur H. Meadows. “It was really a family effort,” grandniece and foundation president Linda Evans says. “Every member of the family was involved. It was truly a labor of love and a fabulous gift to the community.”

Meadows’ loan of Spanish art was the first in the museum’s 34-year history. The show included works by Velazquez, Goya, Miro, Picasso, Murillo, and Ribera—some of which had not returned to Spanish soil in 200 years. Approaching the microphone, Lunsford cleared his throat and nervously addressed the crowd. “I apologize for my poor Catalan,” he said. “I hope that you will understand how thrilled and honored I am to accompany these great works to Spain. It has been an exhilarating and cooperative labor of love between Meadows, the Museu, and the City of Barcelona.”

As Lunsford spoke, the small Dallas contingent that included Evans; Algur Meadows’ niece, Eloise Meadows Rouse; and Meadows School of the Arts Dean Carole Brandt, stood off to the side in silence. Not only because they didn’t understand Catalan, but also because they were in awe at the outpouring of appreciation for the collection.

When the ceremony ended, the mayor linked hands with the Texans, parading them through the room as though they were rock stars. The crowd parted and cameras flashed. A red velvet rope marking the entrance to the stairs leading to the exhibit space was unhooked, and the Meadows group and the local dignitaries descended the stairway to view the collection privately.

Pietà Luis de Morales Oil on panel, c.1560 Called El Divino (“the divine one”), Morales was especially renowned for small devotional panels. This piece falls within the richest and most productive period of his career.

Exhibited on dark crimson walls, the 27 Meadows paintings generated a magnificent, bold statement. Under the gothic-revival ceiling, Lunsford and Brandt accompanied Cuyas as she discussed the importance of each painting with the mayor.

The idea to exhibit the paintings, both in Madrid and Barcelona, was the suggestion of Spain’s previous ambassador to the United States, Antonio de Oyarzadal—made at a dinner party hosted by Janet Kafka, honorary consul of Spain in 1998. “It was a complicated, cooperative effort to get it going,” Lunsford says. But once the Spanish government and museum officials received a generous sponsorship from Fundacion Caja Madrid, the project took off. Meadows first shipped key pieces from its permanent collection to the prestigious Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. As the pieces were uncrated at the Thyssen—a museum with works valued at more than $2 billion—the curators were shocked by the quality of the paintings and decided to hang them among the works in the permanent collection. It was the first time a special exhibit had been displayed in the grand hall.

When the exhibit was unveiled, the consensus of the European art world was that the Meadows collection was among the most significant Spanish collections in the world. The reaction stunned the Meadows Foundation. “It was overwhelming,” says Evans. “I didn’t realize the power of our collection to the Spanish people until I saw it.”

After 30 years, the reputation of Algur Meadows, the Georgia-born Texas oilman, had come full circle. Before his tragic death in a 1978 traffic accident, Meadows knew that he had created a significant collection of Spanish art. Eleven years earlier, however, Meadows found himself at the center of an international art scandal. He not only lost his reputation as a world-class collector, but he also became an art-world joke after buying dozens of high-priced fakes. His humiliating experience was the basis for Clifford Irving’s best-selling novel The Fake, in which Meadows was portrayed as an out-of-control Texas tycoon.

Female Figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa) Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez Oil on canvas, c.1648 This eloquent female figure is among the most enigmatic of Velazquez’s canvases. The work’s subject has been disputed, but it very likely represents one of the ancient sibyls, prophetesses of classical mythology.

Meadows was born full of generosity in the small town of Vidalia, Ga., in 1899. He was a driven and ambitious boy who showed a knack for working with numbers. Though he later earned a law degree from Centenary College in Shreveport, La., in the early 1920s, Meadows set his sights on making his fortune in black gold. With Lady Luck and a few bucks he started buying land from struggling East Texas farmers.

As gusher after gusher came in, Meadows became another overnight Texas oil baron. In the early 1950s, Meadows was granted exclusive rights to explore for oil in Spain. During that time, Meadows and his first wife, Virginia, spent several months a year living at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid, where they both became infatuated with the narrow streets and the slower, more graceful pace of life.

Between business meetings, Meadows joined his wife in wandering the halls of the Museo del Prado. Meadows fell in love with art and began purchasing obsessively. He and his wife acquired works by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Jusepe de Ribera, and Vicente Lopez and shipped them home to Dallas. Meadows was so smitten with art that he purchased Adoration of the Shepards by Pedro Orrente knowing that he could not take the painting out of the country. Instead, he donated it to the Spanish government. Today it hangs in the Museo de Santa Cruz in Toledo.

Saint Sebastian Fernando Yanez de la Almedina Oil on wood panel, c.1506 This painting is important because it is one of the earliest Spanish paintings to reflect in its pictorial atmosphere the influence of Italy’s high Renaissance. Lunsford says that if Spain could have one painting back, this would be the one. It’s a rare piece and Almedina’s finest surviving work.

When his wife died in 1961, Meadows donated their Spanish paintings to SMU, along with the funds to build the Meadows Museum. He soon married socialite Elizabeth Boggs Bartholow, who favored French and contemporary painters. Art dealers offering works by Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso besieged the couple. Convinced that the experts had authenticated the paintings, Meadows kept buying.

When wall space in the Meadows home became a problem—more than 40 masterpieces were on display—they contacted a local dealer about selling pieces from their collection. Only then did Meadows learn that a beast lurked behind his beautiful paintings. His El Grecos were El Fakeos, as were the majority of his Murillos, Riberas, and Goyas.

But the Texas oilman did something surprising, something that would ultimately win him even greater respect—he publicly acknowledged that he had been a fool. Widely respected for his business judgment, Meadows admitted that he hadn’t applied the same discipline to his hobby.

He closed the Meadows Museum, had his whole collection evaluated, and hired the museum’s first director. Bill Jordon, then a 26-year-old who’d just received his doctorate in art history, didn’t jump on board quickly. He wouldn’t accept the position until Meadows agreed to act like a disciplined museum patron rather than a private collector. Meadows readily accepted the challenge. “Al became determined that he would rebuild like a curator, and not just react to private sellers who could potentially take advantage of him,” says Jordon, who still teaches at SMU. “We went through the paintings and took down the worst and began an aggressive campaign to acquire. The people who once laughed at him fell down dead on how he reacted to his misfortunes. He became one of the most respected and admired collectors in the world.”

Photos: All Paintings Reproduced With Permission of Algur H. Meadows Collection, Meadows Museum, SOuthern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas