Beyond his pictorial abilities, the figure of Juan Martínez Abades (Gijón, 7.3.1862-Madrid, 19.1.1920) is a clear example of an intellectual that the society like the Spanish one of the Restoration could create, with all his virtues but also with all his faults. He was an excellent painter of sea coasts, illustrator of prestige in the first stage of "White and Black" and a successful composer and writer of couplets sang by all the great stars of the genre. Martínez Abades was a famous and recognized person. However, he could never even think of escaping the strict artistic and intellectual limitations of the Spain of the Restoration. Hard-working, elaborate, serious and "integrated" he incrusted in the intellectual environment of the emergent middle class. He was son of a gijonese manufacturer, having no major difficulties but, simultaneously, having no interest for investigating outside his world. On the other hand, he shared this attitude with the majority of his more respected friends who formed the intellectual elite of the time, from Maria Guerrero to Álvaro Retana.
The artistic training of Juan Martínez Abades began when he started to study for obtaining the General Certificate of Secondary Education in the Institute Jovellanos of Gijón. There, he started to develop his extraordinary endowments for drawing that provided him with the possibility of going to Madrid in 1880 to register in the Special School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving. At the same time he took private lessons from José Gragera and Ignacio Suárez-Llanos. He was the most hardworking student of the School. This period of Martínez Abades's education lasted until 1887. He presented his works at several National exhibitions and that was going to become a routine in his life. Among some prizes and some fiascos, he obtained a scholarship of the Delegation of Oviedo to go to Italy.
The stay of Juan Martínez Abades in Italy lasted throughout the years 1888 and 1889, though it seems that it did not have a big impact on his subsequent evolution as painter. However, during the above-mentioned stay Martínez Abades painted one of his more outstanding works, El viático a bordo, that he presented to the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1890 earning the Second Medal. This recognition brought him fame in the Hispanic artistic world.
At this time he finished his period of training and started his conquest of the public. That conquest in the atmosphere of Madrid of the end of the 19th century could only be realized through social relations, competition in the exhibitions, both national and regional, and the thematic specialization.
Martínez Abades tackles these three ways to prosper. He is strongly screened by his Asturian friends, among which stands out Florencio Valdés, real protector of Martínez Abades. Valdés will establish in Madrid a group of relations that, starting from the painters or the Asturian countrymen, will allow him to settle among the intellectual elite of Madrid. These relations turned into a veritable social network of mutual support and protection necessary to survive in the court.
The situation around the participation in Exhibitions of Juan Martínez Abades is almost pathological. From the time of his studies in the Special School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving, Martínez Abades displayed his works to some contests, however, since his return from Italy and until, approximately, 1910 his exhibiting is constant with different fortune. Thus, besides his prize in the National Exhibition of 1890, he received a Second Medal in the National Exhibition of 1892 for El entierro del piloto and the First Medal and Isabel's Commission in the National Exhibition of 1901. He also took part in foreign exhibitions as the one organized in Berlín in 1891 or the one of Chicago in 1893.
But, without doubt, Martínez Abades was recognized in the pictorial world of the epoch owing to his sea coasts. It was said that he was the “marinista” par excellence of the Cantabric Sea. In all his works, in oil paintings as well as in the world of the illustration, the sea coasts are very numerous and of an irreproachable technical quality. It was the genre where he developed better; besides, it was a consolidated market where he dominated without any discussion.
Nevertheless, the figure of Juan Martínez Abades exceeds the bounds of the intellectual elite of the Restoration by two activities that brought him near the general public: his work as an illustrator and, especially, as a composer of couplets.
As regards the world of illustrations, Martínez Abades entered it in his early period as an illustrator of comical magazines like "La Caricatura" and "Madrid cómico". However, it will be his collaboration with the magazine "Blanco y Negro" that had just seen the light, which will bring him the major reputation. This magazine, set up by Torcuato Luca de Tena in 1891, received Martínez Abades frequently from 1893 forming the first large group of illustrators of publications (Agustín Lhardy, Jose García Ramos, Cecilio Pla, Manuel García Rodríguez or Narcissus Méndez Bringa). Since 1900 the illustrations made by Martínez Abades were mainly in colour and were produced up to the artist’s death.
During the last years of his life the facet of illustrator and composer of couplets prevailed over his work on oils. His work as illustrator was recognized and it was well paid, besides, his musical activity provided him with an unexpected and high annual income. However, his sea coasts stopped providing him the previous prestige. The National Exhibition of 1908 was the turning point in the creation of his oils paintings. He presented six works with Asturian, Canary and Basque motives that, in spite of his great expectations, passed almost unnoticed. Incorporation to the group of the authors like Romero de Torres or Darío de Regoyos was the sign of the new currents that the Spanish painting started to introduce and for which Martínez Abades was not prepared. As the consequence of this frustration, Abades left aside his sea landscape creation in benefit of the illustration and, especially, of the world of music.
Nevertheless, he continued tirelessly painting all kinds of sea coasts from his residence in Ribadesella. At the same time, he continued displaying the works in the contests of National Expositions, although without the previous success. Nevertheless, his art was recognized by part of the critics and public in a great anthological exhibition of his works in the salon of Iturrio of Madrid in 1913. Thus, he passed his last years in composing couplets, illustrating and painting sea-coasts until his death in Madrid on 19 January, 1820.
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