Prado Museum

Five paintings not to miss when visiting the Prado

Located in the heart of Madrid, the Prado is not only Spain’s largest museum but also one of the most important art galleries in the world. The museum houses a prestigious collection of European works of art dating from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, comprising more than 8,000 paintings, 6,400 drawings and nearly a thousand sculptures. Just like the Louvre has incredible works of art like the Mona Lisa or the Raft of the Medusa, the Prado also contains exceptional pieces that we’ll be having a look at today in our Inspiration blog.

Tres de mayo, by Francisco de Goya (1814)

El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid (The Third of May 1808) is Spanish artist Francisco de Goya‘s most famous work. It represents a group of French soldiers executing prisoners from Madrid who were captured during the May 2nd insurrection.

This painting breaks in a singular way with the manner in which the horrors of war were depicted up until then. Its use of dramatization and chiaroscuro, coupled with the expressive attitude of the characters and the psychological power that emanates from this painting make it one of the first important works of the modern era. According to art historian Kenneth Clark, the Tres de Mayo is “…the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word: in style, in subject and in intention”.

The canvas can be divided into two large, distinct parts. The first represents the Spanish prisoners, executed at close range by the French soldiers. The light, concentrated on this part of the canvas, highlights the facial expressions of the condemned. It’s a technique used by the artist to communicate the distress of these men down on their knees, begging the enemy to spare them. It’s in stark contrast to the painter’s treatment of the imperial troops. Nestled in the dim light, the soldiers form a monolithic block, relentless and emotionless.

This scene, which represents the tragic heroism of the Spanish insurgents during the French occupation, remains today one of the most famous indictments against war, violence and barbarism.

Tres de Mayo - Francisco de Goya

Las Meninas, by Velázquez

Diego Velázquez, who was King Philip the fourth’s official painter for nearly thirty years, is considered one of the greatest Spanish artists of all time. This native of Seville devoted much of his life to painting portraits of the palace’s residents in all their finery.

Las Meninas depicts the Spanish Infanta Margaret Theresa of Spain, future Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, surrounded by her bridesmaids, the painter himself, a dwarf, a chaperone and a guard. Her figure is enhanced by its central role in the composition, with the light from the nearby window fully illuminating her while emphasizing the curves of her large dress. The fawning attention by her two bridesmaids, both in their eyes and gestures, shows the importance of the young princess in the Spanish court.

Other characters in the painting also attract our interest, starting with the painter to the left of the Infanta. This is Velázquez himself, pictured here supposedly painting the king and queen. His look in this self-portrait, which extends out beyond the canvas in the foreground, seems to capture our attention. Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, placed outside the painting, appear reflected in a mirror at the back of the room. The play of perspectives, illusions and reflections make this complex work one of the most commented in the history of Western painting.

In addition to this magnificent painting, much of the Prado’s current collection was acquired under the direction of Velázquez. It is indeed under his curatorship that works by Raphael, Titian or Rubens arrived in Spain.

The Triumph of David, Nicolas Poussin

The triumph of David by Nicolas Poussin

Rich in Spanish paintings, the Prado Museum also houses many European masterpieces. One example is The Triumph of David, a painting by Nicolas Poussin, the most important French painter of the 17th century.

In this colourful mise en scène, a winged Victory is about to place a laurel wreath on David’s head following his defeat of Goliath. This painting refers to a passage from the Old Testament (Samuel 17: 12-58), that narrates the fight between David, the future king of Israel, and the giant Goliath. To the right of the composition, the decapitated head of the latter is seen resting on some pieces of armour. To the left, we see three putti bringing a golden crown to reward the heroic act of the young shepherd.

The influence of Titian, both in the pictorial technique and in the visual representation of the angels, is particularly noticeable. The mixture of stories from the Bible and mythology is a theme often found in Poussin’s work, other notable examples being The Flight into Egypt or Coriolanus Begged by his Family.

Before being exhibited in the Prado, this work had already resided in Spain: A three-hundred-year-old inventory details the transfer of the canvas from the Palace of La Granja San Ildefonso to the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, the residence of the Kings of Spain.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights is an oil painting on three wood panels, or triptych, a format very popular in the sixteenth century. This work by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch is difficult to date exactly due to a lack of reliable sources. The first mention of the painting appears in the travelogue of Canon Antonio de Beatis. He reportedly observed the triptych at the Nassau Palace in Brussels in 1517, nearly fifteen years after its supposed creation.

By way of an inheritance, the painting became the property of William of Orange before being confiscated by the Duke of Alva, who took it with him to Spain in 1570. Transferred to the Spanish Crown nearly twenty years later, the painting remained for almost four centuries at the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial before being moved to its current exhibition site, the Prado Museum.

The work, which is divided into three panels, can be interpreted chronologically. The left panel represents the Garden of Eden where we observe Adam and Eve surrounded by many animals. The central panel, also the largest, represents a sinful and decadent humanity, which invariably leads to the third part of the composition: hell and eternal damnation.

According to art historians, this painting is a speculum nuptiarum, or “nuptial mirror”. This type of painting was used to educate newly-weds about the importance of their marriage vows, in addition to being used to educate court members who might one day govern.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch

Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco de Goya

Saturn Devouring His Son is one of Goya’s major pieces. First painted on the wall of his home in Manzanares, near Madrid, the work was then transferred to canvas following the death of the artist.

The painting shows the Titan Cronos devouring one of his sons. According to Greek mythology, Cronos, the king of the Titans wanted to overturn the prophecy that one of his children was destined to dethrone him. After having devoured Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon, Cronos prepares to eat the sixth of his children. His wife, Rhea, however, succeeded in duping Cronos by replacing the infant with a stone. The infant, nicknamed Zeus (Jupiter in Roman mythology), would go on to defeat his father and make him spit out his brothers and sisters after a fierce battle involving giants, Cyclops and Métis, the goddess of cunning.

This is one of Goya’s famous Black Paintings, made between 1819 and 1823 on the walls of his house. These were paintings that were neither commissioned nor intended to be seen by the public. These dark canvases embodied the state of mind of the artist, exhausted by the Spanish Civil War and two serious successive diseases that left him both deaf and weakened.

This painting, taken outside the context of Greek mythology, could also be interpreted as an allegory for the contemporary conflicts of the time, with the nation consuming its own children in endless wars.