Of all the many things to see and do in Madrid, of all the wonderful parks and museums, of all the shops and restaurants, the Museo del Prado stands out to me as by far the most rewarding place to visit in the city. Considering how many masterpieces are on display, how many of the finest collections of world class artists—El Greco, Velazques, Goya—can be found here, I have no doubt that it must be one of the greatest art museums in the world. The first time I visited, I was in a state of perpetual amazement—and I’m not usually an art enthusiast.
In this post I would like to take you on a guided tour through the museum. But be warned: I am no art expert, and can hardly even be called an amateur. My knowledge of art history and my capacity for intelligent criticism are slim to none. Nevertheless, they say the best way to learn is to teach, so I will try to teach you about this place.
Since it would be neither possible nor desirable to talk about every work in the collection, I will confine my tour to my favorites. Here’s another warning: my descriptions of paintings will be dreadfully boring and pointless unless you look at an image of the paintings yourself. You can’t take photographs of the paintings in the Prado, so I can’t insert my own images. Therefore I recommend you simply search the title of the painting as you read through.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Before I got into the nitty gritty of analyzing the paintings, I have to tell you a bit about the museum itself. (By the way, throughout this post I am relying on the official Prado guidebook as well as what I can find online for information.)
The Prado is located, appropriately enough, on the Paseo del Prado, a long boulevard in the city center that is also home to the Thyssem Museum, not to mention several government offices. From the outside, the building isn’t especially impressive. It is a long neoclassical building, with arches on the first floor and columns on the second; its façade is a dark grey. Near the front entrance is a metal statue of Goya, hat in hand, looking every inch a gentleman. Near another entrance is a wonderful statue of Velazques, slumped in a chair, a brush in one hand and an easel in the other.
The museum was first opened in 1819, under the auspices of King Ferdinand VII. According to the guide book, the model for the modern public museum was the Louvre in Paris, which was opened in 1793 during the Revolution. After the Napoleonic wars, many of the revolutionary ideas in France were disseminated to Spain. Indeed, now that I think about it, the institution of a public museum is quite a revolutionary idea. Consider where these great collections come from; they used to be the personal collections of monarchs, nobles, and the super rich. It was thus a great advance for civilization when the institution of the public museum was created, for it signaled a broader shift in values. Art was to be celebrated as communal heritage, not hoarded as a private prize. But I suppose the old, hoarding model of art appreciation did have its merits, since it is due to the fine taste and acquisitiveness of the erstwhile Spanish monarchs that we have this collection in the first place.
Let’s have a look inside. The vast majority of the museum’s permanent collection is housed on two levels. The floor plans of both are nearly identical. The Prado Museum is a symmetrical structure. In the center are the largest chambers, bookending the building. Connecting these rooms is a wide hallway, the main gallery, with a lovely arched ceiling. To one side of this gallery (left or right, depending which way you’re walking) is a labyrinth of rooms where most of the art is to be found. I find it easy to get a bit disoriented in these rooms, since you must keep turning left and right to get to the next one. But travelers less navigationally challenged than I am will have no trouble.
The two floors are divided chronologically, with the oldest art on the bottom floor and the newer art on the top. The span of time covered by the collection ranges from about 1300 to 1800. (The Reina Sofia has the more modern works.) Unsurprisingly, the majority of the artists on display are Spanish. The Prado is fairly weak on Northern European paintings—though there are some very nice Flemish works here. (The Thyssem Museum just across the road, which I’ll save for another post, is an excellent complement to the Prado, since it is strong in many areas where the Prado is weak.) There are also many works by Tintoretto and especially Titian, who painted for the Spanish monarchs.
Although the museum contains the excellent works by many artists, the heart of the museum, as the guidebook says, is undoubtedly Velazquez. Of his one hundred or so known paintings, nearly half can be found here. Thus with him we find both the most complete and arguably the most impressive collection in the whole museum. It is to him, therefore, that we must now turn.
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was perhaps the greatest artist of Spain’s greatest age. Born in Seville, he spent much of his life painting for Phillip IV as a court painter. He painted the king, the queen, princesses and princes, court jesters, dwarves, as well as religious and mythological paintings. Velazquez is to Spanish painting what Cervantes is to Spanish literature.
One of my favorite of his works is his Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, a mythological subject. This paintings depicts the scene in Homer when Apollo tells Vulcan, the crippled god of fire and blacksmiths, that his beautiful wife, Venus, is having an affair with Ares the god of war. It’s marvelous. Apollo, god of light, is clothed in an orange robe; his garlanded head emits rays like the sun itself. He is turned away from the viewer, one hand lifted, as he tells Vulcan the bad news. Before him are several grubby, shirtless men, wearing only brown robes around their waists. They are at work in Vulcan’s forge, surrounded by various tools and anvils; everything in the room is a musty, brownish gray, lending contrast with the bright robe of Apollo. A delicate play of shadows makes the viewer feel the space. The illusion is perfect.
The musculature on these smithies is fantastic—not at all exaggerated, but taut and distinct. Every one of them (I’m not sure which figure is Vulcan and which are his helpers) looks at Apollo in amazement. My favorite is the second man from the right. His eyes pop in astonishment, his jaw hangs slack from his mouth. He looks as though he’s about to drop the hammer he’s carrying. He’s clearly stunned by the news. His skinny face, his curly hair, his five o’clock shadow, and his Greek nose—all is so magnificently done that you wonder whether he will soon turn his head and look straight at you.
Another of my favorites is also a mythological scene: The Feast of Bacchus. Dionysus (or Bacchus), god of wine, sits in the center. He is naked except for a blanket draped over his waist. For a god, his physique is flabby, and his arms are thin. He is placing a garland on the head of one of his revelers, who kneels at the god’s feet. But strangely, Dionysus isn’t looking at what he’s doing; his eyes are turned away, to his right, and a coy smile is playing on his lips. It’s as if he’s thinking about something, a secret that he’s keeping from his followers.
To his left are the revelers, a motley crew of bearded peasants. Every one of them is smiling and drunk. My favorite of these is the seated man immediately to the right of Dionysus (from our perspective). The realism of this face is stupefying. He looks out at you from beneath a black, rimmed hat, tilted back on his head. He smiles, showing white teeth from under a bushy mustache. He looks middle aged, but already his face is wrinkled and careworn. He’s dressed like a peasant, and has the look of a man used to manual labor. Although he is giving a toothy grin, I find something quietly tragic in this face. He smiles because of the drink, because of the merrymaking; he smiles because, for a few brief hours, he can forget his cares, forget his hard life, and lose himself in drink. Is this Dionysus’s secret? Is this why he looks away? Is it that he knows that the happiness he provides is a false happiness, not born from appreciation of what one has, but from forgetfulness of one’s lot?
These are two of my favorites, but they don’t convey the versatility of Velazquez’s art. There is, for example, his Christ on the Cross, which is easily one of the best I’ve seen of this subject. It’s a terribly sad painting, with Jesus’ hanging, face turned down, eyes closed, in front of a pitch black background. Velazquez focuses the whole of the viewer’s attention on the Savior’s body, which hangs limply from the cross. His isolation is devastating; He is totally abandoned in this painting—but for the halo of light around His head.
There is a room full of paintings of court buffoons. Apparently, it’s true that kings used to have people who used to be called (quite unjustly) “freaks of nature.” Velazquez painted many of these buffoons, most of them dwarves; and the paintings are excellent. You might expect the portraits to be condescending or exaggerated, but Velazquez looked upon these subjects with real empathy. There is one portrait in particular, of a bearded dwarf, sitting on the floor, staring intently at the viewer. There is nothing buffoonish or silly in his expression; rather, he looks dignified and serious.
I can’t help comparing these portraits with the many paintings of kings, queens, princes, and princesses in the next room. This is the center of the museum, an octagonal chapel that houses the royal portraits. I have to admit that (apart from Las Meninas) I don’t care for these at all. I find the whole lot frankly ridiculous—not because of Velazquez’s execution, but because of the subjects. Many are equestrian portraits. The king sits on a horse rearing its legs, staring off into the distance. It could potentially be heroic, but the final effect is comical—almost satirical. Philip IV looks more like a buffoon than his buffoons, with his overlong, egg-shaped head; his greasy, red hair; his pale, pasty skin; his oversized, puffy lips; his empty, dull eyes. I’m not judging his job as king—he obviously had good taste in art, at least—but he wasn’t a handsome man.
And the dresses that these poor women had to wear! There is a portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria, for example, and I can’t help feeling both sad and embarrassed for the woman. Her dress is so big you could have a dinner party underneath it, and her enormous hair is a close second. She wears a severe and unhappy expression on her face, perhaps because this getup was so uncomfortable. Fashion is a funny thing. This used to be considered highly dignified—royal, in fact. And now, it’s beyond absurd.
But of course, the shining exception to this Las Meninas. This is Velazquez’s masterpiece, and can fairly be said to be the greatest painting in the whole Prado (though it’s not my personal favorite). It is one of those images, like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, that can stick in your mind forever after just one glance. There is too much, and not enough, to be said about it; one could fill a library with analysis and come up short.
First, there is Velazquez himself in the painting, leaning slightly to his left, with a brush in one hand and an easel in another. He is staring right at the viewer, with a thoughtful and serene expression on his face. He looks as though, at any moment, he will begin to paint you, the viewer, as you stand and contemplate him. But what is he painting? Hanging on the other end of the room is a mirror, where we can see a ghostly image of a couple—the king and queen—who Velazquez is presumably in the process of painting.
In the center is the princess Margarita, who also looks right at the viewer. There is something mysterious about his expression. Her head is turned slightly away from us, but she turns her eyes to face us. To her right and left are her maids of honor, the titular meninas, waiting on the princess. But she isn’t interested in them; she’s thinking about something else. What? On the far right of the painting is a dog, looking very sleepy, being bothered by a little girl; and we also see another of the king’s dwarves. On the far side of the room, to the right of the mirror, a man standing in an open doorway. He is one of my favorite parts of the painting. The way he stands, with one foot raised on the stair above him, makes me want to follow him into the scene.
Why is this painting so powerful? At first glance, it’s just a slice of everyday life. Nothing terribly interesting is happening. So why is it so universally celebrated? Well, for one, the composition is perfect. The way the figures are arranged in the space is unsurpassable. But this is a technical perfection. There is something deeper; Velazquez seems to be getting at something. Perhaps the painting is a comment upon art itself. There he stands, painting a royal portrait, in a room already filled with paintings. There he stands, before two of the most powerful people in the world, a guest in their house, working under their patronage. But although Philip IV commanded millions of men, and Velazquez only a brush and paint, whose work has been more enduring?
José de Ribera
José de Ribera (1591- 1652) was a contemporary of Velazquez, who was born in Spain but died in Naples. Stylistically, he strikes me as quite close to Velazquez, though he is not as profound. The Prado has an impressive collection of his works, and two in particular have caught my fancy.
The first is his portrait of Democritus (or Archimedes, depending on who you ask). Of course, it is an imagined portrait, but it is done in the same manner as a real one. Democritus stands before you, a quill in one hand, some papers in another. (If you look closely, you can see that these papers are covered in geometrical drawings, which leads me to think it was supposed to be Archimedes.) The man himself is an ugly fellow. He’s going bald, with only a tuft of hair on the top of his head; and on his face is an unkempt beard. His baldness makes his creased forehead looks enormous, adding to the impression of a man devoted to his intellect. However, he is no dull scholar. He smiles at the viewer, a happy and mischievous smile. It is the smile of an old lecher rather than a philosopher. Or perhaps it is just the mischievousness of a man who is above all the things that make us frown; a man who sees life as a silly game. Although every element seems inappropriate—his winking smile, his peasant clothes, his scraggly beard, his balding head—taken together, the whole thing is a convincing portrait of a real philosopher. It’s a wonderful painting.
The next painting I love by Ribera is his Trinity. The first thing to notice is its composition. The work abounds in diagonal symmetry. Seen from a distance, the painting is composed of five diagonal bands, running from the bottom left to the top right. The first band (at the bottom right) is dark blue; the second (formed by the cape on which Jesus is being carried) is white; the third, (formed by the angels) is a mix of black space and flesh colored faces; the next (formed from God the Father’s robes) is bright red; and the last is bright yellow. Running counter to these bands of color, from the bottom right to the top left, is Jesus’ deathly pale body, stretched out across the canvas. The final effect of this is to make an “X” in the painting, a collision of lines at opposite angles that adds intensity to the composition.
Jesus’ head rests in God’s lap, while his legs are supported by the angels. His arms hang limply from his sides, and his legs are curled beneath him. The portrait of God the Father is one of the most convincing images of God I’ve ever seen, perhaps second only to Michelangelo’s renditions. Although His Son lies dead before Him, He is imperturbably calm. He is infinitely powerful, and yet above all of the corruptions that usually taint the heart’s of the powerful here in earth. Perched below Him is a shining white dove, the Holy Ghost, completing the Trinity. To me, this is the height of religious art.
Now I get to one of my absolute favorites, El Greco (1541 – 1614). His real name was Domenicos Theotocopoulos, but the Spaniards gave him his nickname (“the Greek”). Born in Crete, El Greco was trained in the Byzantine tradition of icon paintings. Later, he traveled to Venice, eventually working in Titian’s workshop. Unable to find suitable patronage, he later made his way to Spain, settling down in Toledo. According to the Prado Guidebook—and I quite agree—he forms part of the trinity of great Spanish painters, along with Velazquez and Goya.
His style—influenced by both Orthodox and Catholic traditions—is absolutely unique and unmistakable. In fact, his style is so distinct that it makes more sense to talk about his work as a whole rather than individual paintings, which I will now attempt to do.
Although El Greco often dealt with traditional, religious themes, his treatment was far from traditional. The colors are bright and pure. El Greco painted with a severely limited pallet; he wasn’t working with the big, fancy 64-crayon box, but the basic 12-crayon set. These simple colors dominates over everything else—big, brash, bright colors; the paintings would be gaudy if they weren’t so beautiful. The bright reds, greens, yellows, and blues swirl and curl across the canvas, highlighted by the dark grey backgrounds he prefers.
There is a certain cartoonish character to his paintings. By this, I don’t mean that they are silly, but that they are exaggerated. El Greco doesn’t aim for a ‘realistic’, ‘lifelike’ representation; instead, he aims for an expression of passionate emotions. Realism, perspective, orderly composition—all are sacrificed for feeling. His figures are distorted and contorted, with elongated bodies in exaggerated and sometimes unnatural poses. Here the vertical predominates over the diagonal and the horizontal. Everything is stretched, and you can feel your eye being pulled upwards. I cannot help comparing this intense feeling of height with that evoked by the Toledo Cathedral in El Greco’s home town. In both that wonderful cathedral and in El Greco’s paintings, the whole emphasis is upwards, creating an astonishing feeling of smallness and awe.
All of these characteristics are evident in El Greco’s Trinity. This painting was actually based on a print by Dürer—the same print on which Jose de Ribera based his depiction of the Trinity. But even though the inspiration was the same, how different are the results! Ribera’s work, although supernatural in subject matter, is strongly realistic in style, whereas El Greco hardly makes the attempt to be realistic. As I mentioned above, Ribera’s painting is based on diagonal symmetry, whereas El Greco’s work is all vertical. Here, Christ lays lifeless, but His body is still held upright. The angels, too, stand upright, as well as God Himself. El Greco’s color pallet also differs markedly from Ribera’s; the latter uses complex shades and shadowing to achieve the verisimilitude, while the former’s preference for bright colors is apparent. Jesus’ naked flesh is contrasted with the bright blue, red, and green robes of the angels who flank Him. And above these figures is the Holy Ghost, flying triumphant against a shining yellow background. Ribera’s picture, although taking place in an imaginary space, still looks solid and three dimensional, while El Greco’s treatment of space seems almost medieval in his lack of concern with solidity and depth. Two masters; two diametrically opposed artistic visions.
For me, the strongest works of El Greco in the Prado are his Annunciation and Baptism of Christ. These two works were both originally part of an Altarpiece that El Greco designed and which has since been dismantled. The composition and style of both are quite similar: a Biblical scene plays out on the lower half of the canvas, while on the upper half figures float above the action. The feeling of vertigo engendered by these works is especially noticeable in person. I find it’s best to experience El Greco’s paintings while standing quite close, looking up at the top. Seen from this angle, elongated and distorted figures do not look at all ridiculous, but like heaven itself has opened up above you.
I find it especially difficult to articulate exactly why I like El Greco’s work so much. His work is not technically astounding (at least, not in my opinion). They are also not exactly pretty, at least not in the way many landscapes and portraits are pretty. True, there is a certain sweetness and tenderness in El Greco’s faces, such as the face of the Virgin in the Annunciation; but there is no physical beauty, and hardly any individuation. Like in medieval painting, El Greco isn’t trying to capture individual personalities; his paintings are not about people—at least, not primarily—but about the divine.
He is great because his vision is so convincing. One feels that he is trying to communicate his whole worldview to you. The author who I most readily think of for comparison is Dostoyevsky. Both El Greco and Dostoyevsky were unconcerned with realism, naturalism, or conventional elegance, but instead subordinated everything to their profound, religious perspective. Both produced works that would be silly, ugly, or even ridiculous if they were not so powerfully moving. Both were products of their time, and yet looked far beyond their time; both had styles influenced by the fashions of the day, which yet broke every rule of conventional taste. Both were overshadowed during their lifetimes by lesser artists, due to their insistence on expressing their deepest thoughts in a style unique to themselves. El Greco, like Dostoyevsky, defines what it means to be a true artist.
We now move on to the third part of the Trinity—Goya.
Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) was actually alive when the Prado was opened. Though born into a poor family, he eventually rose to be the most famous painter in Spain. Now he is recognized as one of the most influential and important painters of his century—indeed, of all time. The Prado has an enormous collection of Goya’s works. According to the guidebook, there are almost 150 paintings of his. Like Velazquez, Goya was extraordinarily versatile; he painted portraits, country scenes, landscapes, mythological scenes, religious works, and still lifes. But Goya was also an artist of enormous depth, creating many works of astonishing emotional force.
Because he was so versatile, it’s difficult to discuss his work as a whole. But there are some things I notice. First, he had a preference for dark colors; many of his paintings are set in a kind of gloomy twilight, even if they are outside. Second, to my eye Goya’s figures are unnaturally short and stocky; and I find that Goya’s faces have a kind of ape-like quality, with a small forehead, a small nose, and big eyes. In some paintings, this effect is subtle, but in others it is quite apparent. Many of Goya’s best paintings are depictions of violence, terror, desperation, and pain. Like Kafka, Goya had a way of portraying the terrors of life so forcefully that even us moderns, constantly barraged with violent imagery, are still shocked and horrified by what we find.
Although there are several fine portraits by Goya in the Prado—as well as one famous nude drawing of a woman, which was quite scandalous at the time—what most appeals to me is his darker side. This is exemplified in two of his most famous paintings, The Second of May and The Third of May, 1808. These depict the Napoleonic occupation of Madrid, and the short-lived Spanish resistance to the French soldiers. They are both enormous paintings, about twice the size of an average man. They hang side by side in the lower floor of the Prado, a panorama of war.
The first painting, The Second of May, 1808, depicts the fighting itself. The scene is set in the Puerta del Sol, where Spanish citizens are attacking the French troops. Some of these French soldiers are Mamelukes on horseback, who Napoleon picked up in Egypt. According to the audioguide, the sight of Arab troops in Madrid was an especially troubling sight for the Spaniards, since they had fought so hard to push the Muslims out of their continent.
Be that as it may, Goya’s treatment can hardly be called propagandistic. There are no heroes or villains in this painting; rather, everyone—Spanish, Egyptian, or French—is reduced to animal desperation. There is nothing glorious to be found; there is only despair and death. Compare one of the figures in the foreground, a Spaniard. He is dressed in dark clothes; in his right hand a dagger is held aloft. Below him, hanging off a horse, is a dead Mameluke with blood dripping down his body. Even so, the Spaniard, with inhuman eyes filled with a mixture of fear and hatred, prepares to stab down once more at the dead soldier. Above him is his counterpart on the French side, a Mameluke seated on a horse. He also has a knife grasped in his right hand, prepared to stab down; his eyes also are filled with that mixture of fear and hatred that animates the Spaniard. These two foes are equals in this battle—neither is ideologically, morally, or culturally superior. They are men turned to beasts through violence. Around these two figures, everyone else is nearly faceless; their eyes and mouths are mere blurs in the confusion.
The second painting, The Third of May, 1808, depicts the ruthless execution by the French of the prisoners taken during the uprising. The scene is now the hill of Principe Pio. On the right of the painting, a faceless line of French soldiers are hunched over their rifles, prepared to fire. Here the soldiers are neither men nor beasts, but mere machines of destruction. On the left are a group of cowering men, about to be killed. The most arresting figure is, of course, the man in the very center. While everyone around him is dressed in dark colors, this man wears a white shirt and yellow pants. He alone doesn’t cower; he looks right at the firing squad. His arms are raised high in the air—but why? Is he begging for mercy? No, it’s something more. That man’s gesture express Goya’s own feelings at the senseless destruction of war. It is a horrified, despairing plea for it all to stop; for the soldiers to cease seeing each other are enemies, and to start seeing their enemies as humans.
But these two paintings, as violent as they are, seem almost tame in comparison with Goya’s Black Paintings. Here is where Goya most nearly approaches Kafka. These paintings were originally painted by Goya for himself, late in his life, while he was living in a house outside Madrid called La Quinta del Sordo (The House of the Deaf Man). They are enigmatic, mysterious, and terrifying works. Their name comes from their dark color, which Goya achieved by mixing printer’s ink in with his oil paints.
The most inscrutable of these paintings is what’s called the Half-Submerged Dog. A dog’s head emerges from behind something—a dark brown area at the bottom of the painting. But what going on? Is the dog swimming? Above, the canvas is absolutely featureless, just a dark, textured yellow. The viewers eye is attracted to the dog’s expression; he is staring up into the yellow space above, and looks frightened to me. But it is really impossible to guess what Goya was trying to depict here. The final impression is one of devastating emptiness and confusion.
The rest of the paintings are hardly easier to interpret. Two giant men stand in a countryside, cudgeling one another. A goat-like shaman sits surrounded by monkeyish peasants. An old man eats soup, while a cadaverous figure points a bony finger.
But the most absolutely disturbing of these paintings is Saturn Devouring his Son. The subject is the old Greek legend. Saturn was told that one of his children would overthrow him, so he gamely decided to eat them all as soon as they were born. Goya takes this story and turns it into a nightmare. Saturn is not godlike, not even human. He kneels in a dark space, his naked body covered in shadow. He stares at the viewer with wide eyes as he takes another bite of the already decapitated, bleeding figure clutched in his hands. There is no question why he is doing this: fear. You can see in his eyes, he is terrified. This must be one of the most penetrating analyses of power I know. This titan, ruler of the universe, is forced to eat his own children to maintain his control. Absolute power has not only corrupted him, but it has destroyed him. There is nothing left in him but desperation.
Only the Beginning
I have spent days writing this post, and have only scratched the surface of the treasures you can find in the Prado. I need to stop before I get any further carried away in my descriptions. But know that these paintings I have described, though I think they are some of the best in the museum, are not a fair representation of all that the Prado contains. There are works by Titian, Tintoretto, Roger van der Weyden, Rubens, Dürer, Raphael, Caravaggio, Corregio, and Fra Angelico. Added to this are innumerable works by minor masters, filling every room with beauty.
If you visit Madrid, do take the time to go to the Prado. It’s a magnificent place.