This exhibition brings together 281 works from the collections of the Museo del Prado, all characterised by their small format, technical mastery, exquisite brushstroke, sophisticated colour and the presence of hidden details that encourage close-up observation of these cabinet paintings, preparatory sketches, small portraits, sculptures and reliefs. Half of the works have not been on regular display at the Prado in recent years; kept in storage or on long-term loan to other institutions, they have to some extent been obscured by the more famous and popular works in the collection that always attract most attention. Nonetheless, they are of equal merit, interest and beauty. The uniqueness of the Prado lies in the extremely high quality of its collections, the excellent state of conservation of its works and the variety of its holdings, assembled over the centuries by successive Spanish monarchs and through the gifts and acquisitions made from the 19th century onwards.

The works in the exhibition are displayed in seventeen galleries with a primarily chronological ordering, giving rise to a fascinating survey that begins in late 14th century in Italy, France and the Low Countries and concludes in 19th-century Spain. This concentrated focus provokes an awareness of the passing of time, which unites past and present, and also reveals the uniqueness and richness of the Museo del Prado  today. In addition, the relationships between different artistic media and geographical origins bring to light technical and stylistic similarities and differences in works by major artists. The dialogues established between these works have much to say about the importance of outside influences or, conversely, of local tradition. In some cases the subject-matter takes priority over the artists and their styles, encouraging the viewer to consider the different ways in which northern and southern European artists depicted the same theme. The result is a comprehensive vision of European art and its significance, ranging from the Middle Ages to late 19th-century naturalism and encompassing the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo.

The Prado has undertaken a significant project of cleaning and restoring the works on display in order to present them in optimum condition and thus to allow for an appreciation of the particular type of beauty hidden within paintings and sculptures of this size. It is only with perfect tonal relations on the pictorial surface and through the transparency of the varnish that the precision of the brushstrokes can be seen, which in turn allows the viewer to fully appreciate the meaning and significance of the figures and their actions, the poetry of landscapes and the striking presence of still lifes. Small-format works of this type need to be in very good condition in order to reveal the artist’s original intention, both in the case of those executed in a precise, meticulous technique and others characterised by a degree of abstraction that borders on an expressive violence, as in some of the preparatory sketches on display.

In the present exhibition devotional painting leads on to mythological themes, while landscape becomes an  autonomous genre in the 16th century. Portraiture is present from the outset, characterised by melancholy (one of the intrinsic qualities of art and of artists), satire, ironic reflection on the human condition and an exaltation of power, before it moves towards an emphasis on real, everyday, bourgeois life in parallel with the rise of the middle classes in the late 18th century. Works of this type allowed artists to demonstrate their creative imagination as well as their technical mastery and capacity for innovation, leading them to use new materials in order to achieve different effects. Wood, the habitual support for the earlier works, thus gives way to canvas, copper plate, slate, tin plate and artificial stones, each of which determines the specific nature of the pictorial surface, as is also the case with the marble, alabaster, polychrome wood, clay and bronze used to create the sculptures on display here.

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