A Quick Art History Highlight Guide for Madrid

Spain Travel Blog

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Museo del Prado

 Las Meninas, Diego Velazquez, 1656


This is (in my humble opinion) the most important and revolutionary paintings of the history of art.  The painting shows a candid image of the court of Philip IV, with the young princess being fawned over by attendants. 

On the edge of the painting the view is being blocked by a canvas, behind it the artist depicts himself in a contemplative gaze, while loading paint onto brush.  What Velasquez is painting is unclear, perhaps it was an attempt to connect the viewer to the painting, by suggesting that it is the viewer that is being painted.  Velasquez does leave a few clues however, on the back wall, one painting is illuminated, perhaps to indicate that it is actually a mirror, reflecting the image that Velazquez paints: a portrait of the king and queen. 

Although the painting is Baroque, it has a decidedly modern feel.  Velazquez’s masterful reflexive subject matter makes statements on what painting is, and the viewers role in experiencing a painting. 

La Maja Desnuda, Francisco Goya, 1797


This painting is paired right next to a painting of the same woman, in the same pose, only clothed.  It is unsure who the woman in the painting is, but it caused quite a scandal in the Spanish court, resulting in Goya’s termination from his position as court painter.  The ‘Maja Desnuda’ strays from the typical form of the female nude (think Titian’s ‘Sleeping Venus’, or all classical Greek nude statues in a pose of false modesty’) because she dares to gaze out from the painting and meet the viewer in the eye.  Although the female nude form was not new to art, her daring gaze was considered to be pornographic. 

The Dog, Goya, 1823 (my favorite)


The Prado has an extensive collection of Goya’s works, I think he is one of the most fascinating artists.  Later in his life he went deaf, and also crazy, and ended up painting all the walls of the inside of his house with extremely terrifying images.  The walls were removed and some pieces are now displayed in a gallery dedicated to him.  Some of them were so scary, that I couldn’t even look. 

A small dog peeks out its tiny head from behind an ambiguous brown foreground and gazes meekly at a daunting shadow.  Very scary. 

The Family of Charles IV, Francisco Goya


Goya originally worked as a portrait painter to the royal family.  I think this painting really depicts his genius – if you look carefully at the faces of the members in the portrait, you can see they are the ugliest people imaginable (one person is actually turned away, because its THAT bad) But Goya, painted them in the most amazing, beautiful, shining clothes.  It is almost impossible to notice their ugly faces, because of the incredible shining majestic clothes that Goya painted makes them look almost beautiful. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1504


This is a triptych by the Netherlandish painter Bosch.  I wish I knew more about this painting, it is one of the most symbolic and mysterious painting known to man.  It is an extremely surreal depiction of medieval Christian ideology.  Since I can’t provide an explanation that would give it justice, I will direct you to the Wikipedia article.  ;)



Reina Maria Sophia

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937


This is Picasso’s masterpiece, which he used to protest the WWII and Franco’s rule of Spain.  Picasso refused to let the painting be displayed in Spain until Franco’s removal from power.  It was originally hung in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC until Franco’s death, when it was joyously returned. 

Guernika is a small Basque city in northern Spain (actually Boise’s sister city!)  If you go there today you can still see piles of rubble from when they were mercilessly bombed by the Nazis, with full permission from Franco.  Picasso uses his cubist style to depict the chaos and horror of the bombing.  Notice the large bull in distress on the left side of the painting – the bull is often used to represent Spain, and is usually depicted as strong and stoic, however its clear distress in the painting shows how traumatic the bombing was to the entire country, not just the city. 

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum


(I adored this museum! Their collection covers a broad spectrum of western art, from the Renaissance to 20th century)  Although it does not hold any iconic ‘don’t miss’ pieces, it has a great collection of works from extremely famous artists, notably a spectacular pop art collection. 


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