Welcome to the Museo del Prado, an institution dating back almost 200 years and one whose origins and unique nature are largely due to the collecting tastes of Spain’s 16th- and 17th-century monarchs. Collecting at that period differed from the present day. Rather than aiming at comprehensiveness, collectors aimed to assemble as many works as possible by their favourite artists. This explains why the Prado has been described as a museum of painters not of paintings, given that its artists are represented in a superlative manner with, for example, the largest holdings of Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez and Goya, some numbering more than 100 works. This type of instinctive collecting also resulted in gaps and explains why some periods are less well represented than others, either because they were not of interest, for example the Italian Primitives, or for historical reasons, as with 17th-century Dutch painting.
The first painter collected by the Spanish monarchy and the founding pillar of the Royal Collection is Titian. This choice had decisive consequences for royal collecting and for the very evolution of Spanish painting. By opting for the great champion of colour over the Florentine and Roman painters who upheld the primacy of disegno, the Spanish monarchs focussed on a type of painting which emphasised the most emotional and sensual aspects. Titian was followed by other Venetians (Veronese, Tintoretto) and by artists who took up their legacy, including the Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Their influence was crucial for the flowering of Spanish painting in the 17th century, led by Velazquez. This school is the lynchpin of the old Royal Collection but it is not the only one, and other painters and schools were added from the 16th century onwards. Philip II admired 15th-century Flemish painting, hence the presence of works by Van der Weyden, Memling and above all Bosch, while still more important was Philip IV, who not only commissioned works from Rubens, Velázquez and Van Dyck but also from José de Ribera, a Spaniard active in Rome, from the French artists Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, and from the Italian painters who worked on the decoration of his numerous residences. Philip also attempted to fill gaps in the collection, acquiring works by non-Venetian Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, Parmigianino and Correggio. On his death the Spanish Royal Collection was the greatest in Europe and the example to be emulated.
The arrival of the Bourbons at the start of the 18th century led to the employment of French painters, initiating a new century dominated by non-Spanish artists. The French were followed by the Italians, and in the third quarter of the century Madrid was the setting for one of the most fascinating artistic rivalries in Europe when Charles III employed two artists with totally opposing ways of understanding and practising painting: the Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a brilliant descendent of the great tradition of art, and the Bohemian trained in Rome, Anton Rafael Mengs, the herald of Neo-classicism. It was only with Goya at the end of the century that a Spanish painter once again dominated the court scene.
The Prado and its collections reflect the history of Spain, whose waning role on the international stage in the 19th century reduced its appeal for foreign artists. Spanish artists now trained and worked abroad: in Rome at the beginning of the century, and from the mid-century onwards in Paris, the new world capital of art. The nationalistic fervour that characterised the entire century, reflected by Spanish artists in canvases celebrating the country’s peoples, landscapes and history, and the Disentailment of ecclesiastical possessions which, when they entered the Prado from the Museo de la Trinidad, significantly enriched the original holdings from the Royal Collection, are all reflected in the Museum’s collections, which terminate in 1881, the year of Picasso’s birth. Furthermore, while primarily oriented towards painting, these collections also include outstanding examples of sculpture, the decorative arts and works on paper, from antiquity to the 19th century.
Since its foundation in 1819, the Museo del Prado has played a key role in the evolution of art history. It has been crucial for the rediscovery of the Spanish Primitives and emblematic figures such as El Greco, and for positioning Velázquez as the greatest figure in the Spanish pictorial Parnassus, while its galleries have inspired some of the most avant-garde painters of the past 150 years. We are proud to show visitors this great artistic patrimony.