WASHINGTON — Spain is known for its great art, writers and explorers, but not as well known for its role in supporting American independence.
England's bitter imperial rival on the seas and in the colonies, Spain now is claiming its place in history alongside France as a crucial player in the American Revolution.
In an event timed to Hispanic Heritage Month, the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition, "Legacy: Spain and the United States in the Age of Independence, 1763-1848," examines Spain's role in the American Revolution and in the years afterward.
The oldest daughter of King Juan Carlos of Spain, known by the title of Infanta Elena, opened the exhibit in late September. It runs through Feb. 10.
"The American and Spanish portraits and original documents that we contemplate in this excellent exhibition have a strong evoking and symbolic power," the Infanta Elena said. "They enhance the key role of Spain in the Revolutionary War and in the founding of the United States. But they also reflect shared values and aspirations, over the background of the enlightened spirit of the time."
Carolyn Kinder Carr, the deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery, said, "This exhibition invites people to immerse themselves in this era and learn more about Spain's key role in the revolution and the early days of the American republic through extraordinary portraits, original treaties and maps."
Among the portraits is one of Jorge Ferragut, a merchant sea captain from Menorca in the Balearic Islands who joined the revolution and led naval battles in South Carolina and land campaigns against the British in North Carolina. The portrait is attributed to William Swain. Ferragut's son, David, whose name was altered to Farragut, went on to greater fame than his father as a naval hero in the Civil War and was named the first U.S. admiral.
"Few Americans realize that Hispanics have played an important role in our country since its founding," said Pilar O'Leary, the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which promotes Hispanic exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution. "The fact that Hispanic-Americans fought alongside Anglo-Americans to help obtain independence from Britain, for example, is not often taught in U.S. classrooms or history books today. This exhibition will raise public awareness of the historical role and roots of Hispanic-Americans in U.S. society."
Bernardo de Galvez was another pivotal figure. The Spanish governor of Louisiana, Galvez sent arms and supplies to George Washington's troops, blocked the British from using the port of New Orleans and opened it to the American revolutionaries, and led the naval campaign that took Pensacola from the British in 1781. That victory, many historians say, engaged the British navy and enabled Americans to beat the British at Yorktown, the final major battle of the revolutionary war. Galveston, Texas, is named for him.
In its support of the American revolutionaries, the Spanish court wasn't endorsing democratic ideals; it was making a strategic move to recover lands lost to England and to weaken English influence in the Americas.
"They were not trying to help a country that was getting rid of the English monarchy," said David Weber, the director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Dallas' Southern Methodist University.
Weber, who participated in a three-day symposium on Spain and the American Revolution that coincided with the opening of the exhibition, said that in the history of the creation of the United States, "Spain's role is active and important."
"In Texas, Florida and California, there is more interest in all of America's colonial past, not just its English past," he said. "We have to gain a fuller appreciation of our nation's past."
Spanish officials hope to widen that interest.
"In many history books, the Spanish contribution to the American Revolution has been ignored or underestimated, with the belief that Spain was playing only second fiddle to France in this international conflict," said Eduardo Garrigues, adviser for Hispanic affairs in the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who organized the symposium.
"As the leaders of the American Revolution expressed, without the financial and military support of Spain, the outcome of the war might have been different," he said.
The exhibition features portraits from the era by the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya and well-known paintings of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as well as maps and documents.
It covers the period from 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed and Spain controlled about half of what's now the United States, through 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed to end the Mexican-American War.
ON THE WEB
The National Portrait Gallery's Web feature on the exhibit.