MADRID, Spain — Every Sunday he watched her emerge from her carriage and enter the church. He was fascinated by her long dresses and lace parasols, and one morning he summoned the courage to ask her if he could visit her closet. Amused, Micaela Elío y Magallón, the Marchioness of Casa Torres agreed. The boy apprenticed himself to the ironing staff at her palace after school, studying the Marchioness’s garments until she allowed him to design a dress for her. When she wore it to church the following Sunday, 12 year old Cristóbal Balenciaga entered the world of haute couture and high society. He would go on to become Spain’s most renowned fashion designer.
Balenciaga’s early days at the Marchioness’s palace provided a crucial education through her fashion magazines, books, and especially her painting collection. Some of the very same canvases that the designer saw there as a boy are now on display in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s exhibition Balenciaga and Spanish Painting, which pairs 56 works from the 16th to 20th centuries with 90 of Balenciaga’s designs — including 30 garments that have never been displayed publicly before. The comprehensive exhibition traces the undeniable influence that iconic Spanish painters like El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco Goya exerted on the designer’s remarkable visual universe throughout his career.