The Museo del Prado is Spain’s largest art museum. It’s located right in the middle of Madrid, about a 10 minute walk to the east of Puerta del Sol and right off of Plaza de Cibeles, the night bus hub that’s also home to the Bank of Spain and Madrid’s City Hall. We first visited the museum during orientation week to see some of the major highlights and returned on Tuesday to see some portraits, or retratos, of the royalty of Spain.
The Prado specializes in European art from the 12th to the 19th century. As the Spanish Royal Collection grew over the years, the curators realized they needed to restrict the Prado’s exhibitions to just pieces from that time period, and mostly those from Italian and Spanish artists like Titian, El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez, and especially those commissioned by the royalty of Spain, focusing more on depth than breadth for the Prado’s pieces. Other collections have been moved to nearby museums within walking distance of el Prado, such as the Museo Arqueológico for the prehistoric, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman pieces, the Reina Sofía which houses modern 20th century art like Picasso and Dalí, and the privately-owned Thyssen-Bornemisza which tries to fill the gaps from the official state collection such as works from English, Dutch, and German artists that the Prado lacks, and impressionists, expressionists, and more recent European and American pieces missing from the Reina Sofía. The many exhibition houses in the nearby Retiro park are also used to show other pieces of art through temporary exhibitions like we saw in our paseo through the Retiro the other week. It’s amazing how much art Madrid has within such a short walk!
During our first visit to the Prado, we were led in two groups by either Paco and Patricia. Patricia is an art professor for a few universities around Madrid and Paco is the Deputy Director of our study abroad program who received his training in art history and was actually an art professor before he worked for AU Abroad. We really couldn’t have picked better tour guides to take with us than these two art experts who had such deep knowledge and passion and not only showed us the highlights, but also explained them from an art student’s perspective, noting the possible interpretations, why certain choices were made, and how some of the paintings received changes over time.
Paco also made me realize how the choices of how to exhibit and place different pieces is just as much of an art as the pieces themselves: a lot of works were intentionally shown near each other or situated as a progression in time, and some even faced each other to show clear differences. One of the very cool things was that one of the exhibits had a few different x-rays of the paintings next to it showing how much work goes into making just a single painting. The x-rays revealed how many changes artists make and showed the many sketch marks and tweaks used to develop the final piece. Similarly, we saw multiple copies of the same painting next to each other, some with different color combinations so the artist could see which looked best and some with different subject matters like a woman clothed in one picture and nude in the other, because nude pictures were illegal at one point in time. When we view art we tend to treat it as a finished product, but these exhibitions made me realize how much work goes into making just one piece and how artists continue to make changes as they’re working on it depending on what looks good and what doesn’t. Our tour really focused more on the craft and process of art rather than just the end result.
We learned about other things related to the art field from Paco as well. It turns out that in the past artists were originally treated just like regular tradesmen and laborers like carpenters and masons. They did not have any special elite status and were lumped in with everyone else who worked with their hands to make a living. The royal artists were constantly trying to change that in different ways, such as including themselves in the work surrounded by those of high status and even finding interesting ways to sign their works, such as by including a signed piece of parchment on the floor in the actual content of the painting. Though pieces of art can be very pretty, they seem to always have some political element to them, influencing the choices the artists make when creating them or causing them to include other elements for political purposes. Along those lines, the popular way of presenting people in portraits actually changed over time, with high class elites needing to stand one way with their legs apart in one art period and another way with their legs closed in another. Because of these changes, sometimes the artists needed to “edit” an already finished piece of work to reflect the new style. If you know where to look, you can actually see these changes in the paintings hanging up in the museum.
The actual art we saw was just as cool as learning about the process of making it. Three of my favorite pieces we saw were The Disrobing of Christ by El Greco, Les Meninas by Diego Velázquez, and Christ Washing the Disciple’s Feet by Tintoretto. The Disrobing of Christ, or el Expolio, is one of El Greco’s most famous paintings and depicts Jesus right before his clothes are removed for his crucifixion. Although it is obviously a very famous and beautiful work of art that is very indicative of El Greco’s dark style, my favorite part was that we were very lucky to have seen it in the Prado at all. Normally you can only see it in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo, but we were lucky enough to see a temporary exhibition in the Prado after its recent restoration. We saw it at the Prado on a Thursday, then visited Toledo that Saturday, and I’m pretty sure the painting returned to the cathedral the day after on Sunday or sometime very soon after, so we made it just in time. Another of favorite paintings, Las Meninas, is probably the highlight and most well-known piece of the entire Prado collection. We’ve learned about it multiple times in school, so it was nice to have the opportunity to see the real thing on display. What’s interesting about this painting, beside it being a beautiful work of art, is how there are many interpretations of what is actually going on and what the painting represents, such as whether Velázquez is painting the princess in the foreground or the king and queen in the mirror in the background. I won’t go in depth about the many interpretations since I’m not an art history student and Les Meninas is one of the most analyzed pieces in art in the world, but it was definitely cool to see the painting and hear about some of the interpretations from Paco while we were standing right in front of it. Finally, Christ Washing the Disciple’s Feet was interesting for of its use of perspective. Like the Mona Lisa, the table follows you around the room and changes positions as you view it from different sides. Needless to say, after Paco told us this, we walked back and forth multiple times just to see it move! Although these three were my favorites, it never ceases to amaze me how many pieces of art museums hold — we spent tons of time looking at art on our first trip to the museum and yet we saw totally different rooms when we came back to look at the portraits of the royal family, and I’m sure there’s tons more out on display, let alone in the archives.
I wish I had some pictures to include here to show all of these cool things and help you understand what I mean by some of these things, but we visited the Prado before I took many pictures on my phone and I think they’re pretty restrictive on what you’re allowed to take pictures of inside the museum. I guess you’ll just have to visit the museum with me sometime to see it all in person! 🙂