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The Prado Museum - Madrid

( Originally Published 1913 )

The Prado in Madrid contains the greatest collection of paintings in Spain. It is frequently called a "congress of masterpieces," being a royal collection which has been amassed to please rather than to illustrate the gradual development of art. Like all private collections, it indicates principally the personal tastes of those who helped in its accumulation. For generations pictures had been collected in the various palaces and royal residences. Finally in the reign of Ferdinand VII. it was determined to provide a place for many of the best paintings which were rapidly deteriorating in damp rooms and closets. By November, 1819, three rooms were ready with three hundred pictures. When later various convents and monasteries were suppressed, their paintings were added, and today the Prado Gallery contains more than two thousand canvases.

The presiding genius of the gallery is Titian. His works have influenced Spanish art as those of no other artist. Among native painters, far transcending the rest is Velazquez. Murillo may be studied to advantage, and Rubens is seen here as nowhere else, for his work in Spain was done in a rare mood. Among early Spanish paintings, six of Ribalta are to be found. His St. Jerome and St. Paul the Hermit are among his strongest. Zuburan, while seen better in Seville, is represented by the Vision o f San Pedro Nolasco and the paintings of several of the saints. These are among his most successful productions. He attempted the Labor o f Hercules but soon showed that he was ill adapted to other than religious subjects.

One room is given over to the work of Joseph de Ribera. His masterpiece, the Martyrdom o f St. Bartholomew, shows to advantage his free, bold drawing. Subjects of this kind were greatly in demand at the time, although Ribera occasionally showed that he could paint in a less tragic vein.

To see El Greco to fullest satisfaction one should go to Toledo. The Prado possesses several of his portraits, even in these his capacity for dramatic composition being visible.

The earliest painters are seldom represented in this collection. It should be remembered that art was everywhere the handmaid of the Church but in no country more truly so than in Spain. Pacheco wrote: "The chief end of works of art is to persuade men to piety and bring them to God." So long as artists clung slavishly to this belief or so long as they were compelled to observe it in order to obtain commissions, any free expression was impossible. This largely accounts for the general absence of the genre pictures, so popular in Holland. The early Spanish painters may be studied today in churches, for which their principal paintings were made. To be sure, some of these paintings later found their way into the various galleries but few of them are shown to advantage at the Prado.

Spain is fortunate to have kept most of Velazquez's productions at home. The Surrender of Breda is regarded as one of his finest triumphs.

"A vast and spacious sky full of light and vapour, richly laid in with pure ultramarine, mingles its azure with the blue distances of an immense landscape where sheets of water gleam with silver. Here and there incendiary smoke ascends from the ground in fantastic wreaths and joins the clouds of the sky. In the foreground on each side, a numerous group is massed; here the Flemish troops, there the Spanish troops, leaving for the interview between the vanquished and victorious generals an open space which Velazquez has made a luminous opening with a glimpse of the distance where the glitter of the regiments and standards is indicated by a few masterly touches.

"The Marquis of Spinola, bareheaded with hat and staff of command in hand, in his black armour damascened with gold, welcomes with a chivalrous courtesy that is affable and almost affectionate, as is customary between enemies who are generous and worthy of mutual esteem, the Governor of Breda, ' who is bowing and offering him the keys of the city in an attitude of noble humiliation.

"Flags quartered with white and blue, their fold agitated by the wind, break in the happiest manner the straight lines of the lances held upright by the Spaniards. The horse of the Marquis, represented almost foreshortened from the rear and with its head turned, is a skilful invention to tone down military symmetry, so unfavorable to painting.

"It would not be easy to convey in words the chivalric pride and the Spanish grandeur which distinguish the heads of the officers forming the General's staff. They express the calm joy of triumph, tranquil pride of race, and familiarity with great events. These personages would have no need to bring proofs for their admittance into the orders of Santiago and Calatrava. Their bearing would admit them, so unmistakably are they hidalgos. Their long hair, their turned-up moustaches, their pointed beards, their steel gorgets, their corselets or their buff doublets render them in advance ancestral portraits to hang up, with their arms blazoned on the corner of the canvas, in the galleries of old castles. No one has known so well as Velazquez how to paint the gentleman with the superb familiarity, and, so to speak, as equal to equal."

Quite as interesting will always be his portraits of the royal family. Philip IV. and his idolized son Prince Balthazar Carlos he painted again and again. The Infanta Mar garita was likewise a favorite subject. The dwarfs and curious creatures maintained at the Court for diversion were often subjects for his brush, and one of his most charming pictures is Las Meninas-the Maids of Honor-who stand by the little princess, forming a picturesque and natural group.

The Tapestry Weavers is a wonderful picture. "The foreground, bathed in warm and transparent shadows, shows a workshop in which women are employed in spinning thread. In a second room at the back, communicating with it by a wide arcade, female visitors to the factory are examining a tapestry of mythological subject that is illuminated by a flood of sunlight. It is hot outside, and the air inside is stifling; so the workers have taken off their outer garments for greater comfort. All are occupied at some task or other. In the center, a superb old woman, with the figure of a fate, holds a distaff and with her foot turns a wheel so rapidly as to make the spokes invisible. On the left, a girl is gulling aside a large red curtain; on the right another, whose facial beauty is left to the imagination, is winding off a skein on a frame-her chemise, clinging to her humid back, leaves one shoulder exposed and reveals a neck bathed with perspiration. Two other girls are carding and winding thread. That is all; and this scene, so simple so intimately familiar, has sufficed for Velazquez to produce a masterpiece.

"We know of no picture in which the perfect and sudden action is more vitally surprised on the spot, or more fully expressed. We feel that the artist has taken less pains to render women occupied in some task than in rendering a piece of nature, an ensemble seized and copied at a particular moment under a determined light.

"He saw in this scene an entire picture, with its planes, gradations, backgrounds and aerial envelope. Here, as in physical life, the atmosphere and the individuals share in the same movement and vibration. Therefore what reality there is here! And how everything holds together in this astonishing painting! It all lives and palpitates; and Art has never succeeded in giving the illusion of reality to such a degree."

When compared to the universal art of Velazquez, Murillo is provincial. Whereas the master belongs to all times and will remain understood of all men, Murillo belonged to a definite age and was best understood by his townsmen. He expressed the ecstatic joy of pious folk in the region of Seville and among them he has always been fondly loved. The Prado possesses many of his pictures, four of his Immaculate Conceptions alone being here. The Christ Child pictured as a Shepherd, one arm tenderly encircling a lamb, the other clasping a crook, robed in a red tunic and a garment of sheepskin, and another showing him fast asleep with his head pillowed on a cross are among Murillo's most popular subjects.

Raphael, Correggio, Paul Veronese and numerous Italians of worldwide fame may be seen in this collection. Fewer of the Dutch and German productions are here.

Goya is to be seen in his designs for tapestries for the royal palaces as well as in portraits of the royal family and Spanish nobles.

The Museo Provincial in Seville was once the home of a wealthy monastery. Today its old convent church is used as an art gallery. Most important of its rooms is the Salon de Murillo. Twenty of the gentle painter's pictures are hung upon its walls. One of the best is the one in which St. Thomas is shown giving aid to the poor. The Vision o f St. Anthony is well known.

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