Josep Amat was born on 13 April 1901, in Barcelona’s carrer Muntaner (Muntaner Street) near Gran Via avenue. His parents were not wealthy but lived a comfortable middle class life. His father Josep Amat i Aymar was born in Barcelona and worked as an estate agent. His mother Joana Pagès was also from Barcelona, was well educated and played the piano. She probably had influence on her children’s artistic penchant. Out of the four children Maria, the eldest, became a good pianist, and Gabriel, the first boy and second child, grew up to be an architect and an excellent watercolour painter.
From his early years Josep Amat proved to have a natural gift for drawing. His parents, recognising it, provided him with tuition when he was still studying the baccalaureate. In 1916 he attended the Escola d’Arts i Oficis Aribau, an arts and crafts school in the neighbourhood. The following year he took classes at the Ateneu Obrer (Workers Cultural Association centre) and started instruction with the painter Antoni Ros i Güell. During the first lesson he was asked to handle the brushes to paint the views from the master’s studio without any guidance. From those early paintings Ros i Güell concluded that the 16 year old boy could learn nothing at his atelier regardless of his interest in painting. And this is what he reported to his parents bringing to an end the sessions they had just started.
After finishing the baccalaureate in 1920, Amat enrolled at the School of Fine Arts of LLotja. In spite of that his father, who had a rather authoritarian and practical character, insisted on registering him for electrical studies at the Escola Industrial (Industrial Studies College), which he dropped two years later.
In 1922 Amat participated for the first time in an art competition-exhibition, which was organised by the Catalan Students Association. His brother Gabriel was awarded the first prize and Josep earned a mention by the Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc art society. The same year he was in military service as a truck driver in the Motorised Army Corp. His father had taught him how to drive and accomplished his hope of sparing him from being sent to Africa.
In 1924 Amat met the painter Joaquim Mir (1) . He was very interested in Mir’s painting and was aware of the master’s outings to capture the views of Riells del Fai (2) surroundings. Amat decided to do the same thing in a bid to encounter Mir. Following those meetings Mir came to consider him as his disciple while, at the same time, they developed a friendship that lasted until Mir’s death in 1940. In 1925, their joint painting sessions increased to the point that Amat was invited to spend frequent periods at Mir’s home in Vilanova i la Geltrú. That assisted the young Amat to meet other famous artists e.g. Miquel Utrillo, Isidre Nonell, Ramon Casas, Santiago Rusiñol, Apel.les Mestres, Aristides Maillol, Manolo Hugué and Joan Rebull.
Mir considered Amat his pupil and the influence of the former is obvious in the paintings created in those early years. Nevertheless Amat regarded himself as a friend rather than a disciple, but treated the master with the deference that a painter of Mir’s age and prestige deserved.
In 1927 Amat increased his dedication to painting, even though he had started a job as a draughtsman for the Town’s Public Works Department. It was during the time of the preparation for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition and he needed to earn some money that his painting was not providing.
On 3rd March 1928, he presented his first individual exhibition at Sala Dalmau in Barcelona, the event being opened by the painter Mir. As part of this show Amat had engraved a portrait of Mir that was illustrating the exhibition poster and catalogue.
In 1931 he stayed at Montserrat, where the monks were offering accommodation to those artists who wanted to paint the surrounding scenery. There Amat painted some canvases and shared the same life with other painters with whom he established lasting friendships.
In 1932 he presented two new exhibitons, at Galeries Laietanes in February and at Galeries Syra in December. Both of them gathered unusual urban sights of Barcelona portraying the Barceloneta and El Raval (3), which attained a remarkable success that assisted to consolidate his career as an artist.
In the summer of 1933 he went on a painting trip to Sant Feliu de Guíxols (4), where he met Isabel Girbau Estrada, who would become his wife. She was the fourth child of one of the well-off families in town. Her father Enecó Girbau i Valls, who had been a banker until the 1914 crisis and afterwards became an industrialist, did not oppose his daughter going out with an artist from Barcelona. Later on Amat’s fiancée Isabel was the person who encouraged him the most to go on a painting journey to Paris.
On that first journey to Paris, in November 1933, he was accompanied by the painter Emili Grau Sala, a friend from the time spent in Montserrat. Grau Sala was already known among Paris’ artistic circles and introduced Amat to French painters such as Albert Marquet and Raoul Dufy, with whom he became an acquaintance.
Paris made a great impression on him and, during that first trip as much as in the others to follow, he painted intensely. During the stay he repeatedly visited the Louvre and, specially, the Jeau de Paume, where he could view the principal Impressionist painters whom he admired the most, e.g. Sisley, Pissarro, Guillaumin and Bonnard.
Back from Paris, in 1934, he opened an exhibition at Galeries Syra where he showed coloured drawings. Later on he took part in a group show at La Pinacoteca where he presented some paintings created in Paris. Both displays attained notable success.
Amat became established as an artist during this period and started to participate in different art competitions of the time. In 1933 he took part in the “Exhibition of Nudes” organised by the Cercle Artístic de Sant LLuc , where he was awarded one of the prizes. In 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936 he submitted artwork at the Drawings Fair and the Barcelona Salon being rewarded with the acquisition of his paintings. In the 1934 National Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid he received a medal. In 1936 he also took part in the Exhibition of Spanish Artists in Paris, which was organised by the Spanish Estate Ministry.
Amat’s frequent correspondence with his fiancée at Sant Feliu during 1935, gives detailed account of the place he rented as their future home. It was the ground floor of a detached house at carrer Jules Verne in the borough of Sant Gervasi in Barcelona. The rental fee was affordable because the house was endangered by the construction of the Ronda del Mig avenue. He rented the house thinking that the planning project might never go ahead.
Josep Amat’s and Isabel Girbau’s wedding ceremony was performed in Sant Feliu de Guíxols on 17 June 1936 at the peculiar Casa de les Punxes (“Needles” House) located in the Sant Pol beach. The best man was Joaquim Mir, who was probably there as a friend rather than as a teacher. It was a month before the start of the Spanish Civil War. After the marriage the couple moved into their recently furnished new residence in Barcelona.
The Civil War had a great impact on the newly married couple due to the traumatic events it brought to the family. Amat’s parents had to go into hiding to a farmhouse they had in Viladecans(5) . Isabel’s father, Enecó, and his brother Ricard were imprisoned shortly after. Enecó was executed by a shooting squad and Ricard, who was sent to the front, died a year and a half later. During the first part of the war the Conseller de la Generalitat (parliamentarian of the Catalan Government) Sr. Tarradellas did his best to protect artists. Amat was sent to work as a draughtsman to an armament plant in Gualba(6) until a factory inspection raised concerns of being discovered unsuitable for the post he was occupying. Since then, he and his wife had to go into hiding from one place to another: Sant Feliu, Viladrau (7) and their own home at carrer Jules Verne in Barcelona.
During this period the painter’s activity diminished a lot, but despite the uncertainty and the perils of the war, he never gave up. In the long waiting hours he created paintings that sometimes reflected solitude, and others, some sort of peace found in their seclusion. In the middle of that state of affairs and shortly after an air attack where a bomb exploded near their home, the first child of the couple, Isabel, was born in July 1938.
Once the War was over he was able to provide some stability for his family. The Post-war hardship was acutely felt among artists, but life resumed at their home in Barcelona and they were able to go back to Sant Feliu in the summer. There, he rented a house in Passeig del Mar (Sea front avenue), which facilitated his intense dedication to painting. The family’s income became secure when he obtained a gentlemen’s agreement with Sala Parés’ owner and art-dealer Joan Anton Maragall. This contract established a monthly average salary in exchange of a minimum of 20 paintings a year which would make the basis for a solo exhibition every two years. The verbal deal left room for the artist to sell his own creations from his atelier. However, given his shy nature, he rarely did it. His inaugural exhibition at Sala Parés in December 1940 was received with great interest from the public and art journalists. Since then Amat regularly exhibited biannually in Sala Parés until 1987.
In 1940 his second child, a boy named Josep, was born and in 1942 the third one, a boy named Joan.
There was little freedom during the Spanish Post-war period and gatherings were limited to small private get togethers. That was the origin of a group of artists that started to meet on a regular basis. The group, called La Colla, consisted of painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, a ceramist and some collectors. La Colla met frequently, attended either by all the members or by smaller groups such as La Colla dels Pepitus (made up of all those members whose given name was Josep). In the 1960s the activity of La Colla started to decline owing to age and deaths of some of the artists.
Throughout this period, Amat resumed participating in art exhibitions and competitions that offered cash prizes as a means to obtain extra income. In 1941, he took part in the National Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid, where he was awarded the Third Medal. In 1942 he gained a diploma in the National Fine Arts Exhibition of Barcelona. In 1943 he exhibited individually for the first time in Madrid, at Sala Vilches where he was going to return years later. In 1944 he was presented the Diputació de Barcelona Prize in the National Fine Arts Exhibition of Barcelona. In 1947 he took part in the Concurs de Pintura de Montserrat competition and was awarded the Second Prize on Landscape.
In 1949 he returned for the first time to Paris after his absence imposed first by the Spanish Civil War and, later, by the Second World War. During this stay he was accompanied by his wife and he painted intensively. In the future he would spend periods during 1967, 1968, 1972 and 1978.
In 1951 he was presented the First Prize in Drawing at the First Hispano-American Art Biennial, celebrated in Madrid. He won another prize at the Second Hispano-American Art Biennial in Havana in 1954. In 1955 he was awarded the Gran Premi de Pintura given by the Diputació de Barcelona, which was well covered by the press. The successful participation in the above exhibitions assisted to consolidate the artist’s prestige.
The period of regular work between Barcelona and Sant Feliu, frequent gatherings with the La Colla friends, and successful partipation in national exhibitions, came to a sudden end during the early 1960s. The planning project of opening the Ronda del Mig was reactivated and the family had to move out, because their home was affected. In September 1962 they moved into a detached house with a garden located near the former one in El Putxet district. Amat had been trying to purchase it for many years, but it took a while because there was a legal case pending. Once he bought it, it took almost another 10 years to fully refurbish the new home due to economic constraints. However, the worst setback came about when his wife having a fall while visiting an archaeological excavation in Sant Feliu two months before moving to the new home. As a result of the fall she became disabled and the painter lost heart. It was thanks to his wife’s positive and lively character that he overcame it. Another setback for Amat came with the sale of the house that the family was renting in Sant Feliu, mostly because he was using its balcony as his studio. Fortunately, the situation was resolved by a friend who acquired the building and agreed to rent one of flats to the artist after the renovation.
During this period and despite all of the misfortune, Amat pursued painting energetically, overcoming all difficulties with the support of his wife Isabel’s courageous and cheerful character.
RECOGNITION OF HIS WORK (1970-1984)
From 1970, Amat started to receive wide recognition for his long artistic career. The Town Council of Sant Feliu organised an exhibition in homage to him. In 1971, when he reached the age of 70, he retired from the School of Fine Arts of Barcelona, where he had been working as a professor since 1941. The same year he had an unexpected success with his exhibition at Sala Parés, where all his paintings were sold on the opening day.
There was an improvement in his economic situation as a result of the growing success of his paintings. Thanks to this progress he was able to buy a flat at Passeig del Mar in Sant Feliu in 1976, when the former rental agreement was coming to an end. This provided him with a terrace with views from where he could paint the bay.
In 1978 he survived a heart attack but had to reduce his activity. From then his trips diminished. During this period a new subject matter appeared among his repertoire: the bunch of flowers on a table either in the terrace at his place in Barcelona or in front of the sea at Sant Feliu.
In 1980, the Town council of Sant Feliu de Guíxols organised a new homage, an exhibition and the dedication of a street to him. In 1981 he became member of the Reial Acadèmia de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi (Catalan Royal Academy of Fine Arts).
HIS HEALTH GETS WORSE (1985-1991)
Amat’s health suddenly deteriorated due to a clot in the brain that caused the loss of mobility to his left arm and leg. After following recuperation he was able to walk again but with a lot of difficulty. However, he did not recover movement on his left arm, which made painting very complicated. Despite his new condition and having only the right arm to pursue painting he took back the brushes. Thanks to his wife’s continuous encouragement and the whole family’s support he picked up the motivation to paint, but his production reduced significantly.
In 1987 the gallery Fontana d’Or organised a retrospective exhibition of his creations. In 1988 he was presented the ultimate and most appreciated distinction among all the ones the artist had received, the Creu de Sant Jordi de la Generalitat de Catalunya (Saint George’s Cross, the highest distinction that a person can receive from the Government of Catalonia).
In February 1990, while he and his wife were in the same hospital, Isabel died, causing him a great deal of distress. Nevertheless, he was able to get better and was sent back home. When summer arrived he spent a short stay in Sant Feliu where he painted his last canvas on July 29. It was a view of the sea front avenue captured from the terrace of his appartment. This last painting demonstrates that, despite the weakening of his physical condition, he was able to skilfully use the brush and had not lost his touch with colour.
Amat died on 17 January 1991 at his home in Barcelona.The press and the same art-critics who had pushed him aside, as they did with any artist who were not following the avant garde trends during the last decades, praised his contribution to 20th century Catalan painting and defined his art-work as a reference point. The perspective of the complete career gave a new insight to his style. The Impressionist or Post-impressionist labels given to him earlier were shifted for the independent and close to the Fauvisme ones from now on.
After his death Josep Amat continued obtaining acknowledgement through different events. Among them are the dedication of a square near his first home at carrer Jules Verne by Barcelona City Council, and the events to mark the 100th aniversary of his birth organised in Barcelona, Girona and Sant Feliu de Guíxols in 2001.
Notes to the English translation
(1) Joaquim Mir (1873 -1940) was a prominent Catalan artist whose paintings helped to define and widen the Modernisme movement. His works are known for their exhuberant palete and free interpretation of the shapes and landscape.
(2) Riells del Fai is a small Catalan village in the valley of the riber Tenes and at the bottom of cingles del Bertí, a chain of mountains inland off Barcelona.
(3) Barceloneta and Raval were low working class neighbourhoods in Barcelona.
(4) Sant Feliu de Guíxols -also known as St. Feliu- is a costal town on the Costa Brava that has historically attracted visitors for its market, beaches, harbour and beautiful town centre.
(5) Viladecans was a farmtown very close to Barcelona, near the coast and El Prat del Llobregat –where Barcelona aiport is currently located.
(6) Gualba is a municipality located in the Vallès Oriental area, province of Barcelona, at the feet of the Montseny mountain chain.
(7) Viladrau is an inland municipality in the Osona area surrounded by the mountain chains of El Montseny and Les Guilleries.