Inside the Masterpiece: Josep Maria Sert’s “Basque Life” Frescoes

Josep Maria Sert (1874-1945) was a renowned mural painter, whose works may be seen at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, the League of Nations in Geneva, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and The GE Center (30 Rockefeller Center) in New York, in the Cathedral of Vic in Catalonia, and here, at the Museo San Telmo in San Sebastian, Spain.

It may sound odd to modern readers, to think of a mural painter.  We tend to think of 20thcentury painters as only those who work in the medium of oil or acrylic on canvas.  It’s true that, since the advent of wallpaper and acrylic house paints, the walls of monumentally-large buildings, the sort of cathedrals of the 20th century, such as hotels and business headquarters, are decorated in paneling (wood, stone, or metal), wallpaper, or solid colors of paint.  A muralist is the more modern word for an artist who works primarily in fresco, as did many of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, who made very few paintings that were not murals.  After all, the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, including Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, are perhaps the most famous murals of all.

Josep Maria Sert

“Basque Life Frescoes”


So while monumental wall decorations grew less and less popular, to some extent because of modern technology and decorative preference, but also because, from an artist’s perspective, wall frescoes were rather traditional and passé, some great muralists worked in the 20th century, including Diego Rivera and Sert.

Sert was born in Barcelona to a wealthy family of textile manufacturers.  He studied at a Jesuit college (see the entry of the Diocesan Museum of San Sebastian for more on the Jesuits), and then at a painting academy in Barcelona.  Among his teachers was the Symbolist Alexandre de Riquier, one of the founders of the Artistic Circle of Saint Luke, a group of painters who invited the young Sert to join them for artistic and intellectual salons, mutual inspiration, and social gatherings.  Sert would later move to Paris, where he joined another group of artists, called the Nabi, which had been established by Maurice Denis.  Through Nabi contacts, Sert received his first major commissions, working with Siegfried Bing in the Art Nouveau style for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.  Around this time he was asked to paint murals in the cathedral of Vic (his works and the cathedral with them were sadly destroyed in 1936).  He worked with the French during the First World War, and was given a Legion of Honor award for his services.  He would grow in fame and stature as a painter, primarily of murals, working throughout Europe and the United States.

The Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements re-invigorated wall painting among other decorative arts, and Sert’s style is a wonderful hybrid of these avant-garde movements, combined with some of the greatest Renaissance painters, such as the Venetians Tiepolo (himself a lifelong muralist), Tintoretto, and Veronese, but also the print-maker Piranesi and the Spaniard Goya, whose work influenced every Spanish artist who followed him.  There is a haunting beauty to Sert’s style, both formally elegant, but also art-historically intriguing.

The sixteen murals displayed here depict scenes from Basque life, culture, and legend.  They are painted in sepia-tone (a black/brown that was originally made from the ink of cuttlefish), with gilding.  Paintings that are essentially two-toned (one color for the outlines and one color for the background) are called grisaille, or “gray-scale,” of which these are a fine example.  Sert’s work is dynamic and gripping, his skill immeasurable.  He distinguished himself by excelling in an all-but-forgotten medium that was once the staple of every great painter.  One reason why muralists are over-looked in modern times is that visitors must seek out the murals, because the walls can’t travel to you.  Most museum-goers visit places like The Louvre or the National Gallery in London which, for reasons of commodity and portability, display few if any wall paintings, instead displaying the portable, museum-convenient works on panel or canvas.  We must travel to the Vatican to see Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, just like we must travel to the League of Nations to see Sert’s works there.  But when artists are as fantastic as Sert, they make it well worth the trip.

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