The building that is now the home of the Museo Nacional del Prado was designed on the orders of Charles III in 1785 by the architect Juan de Villanueva in order to house the Cabinet of Natural History. Nonetheless, the building’s final function was not decided until the monarch’s grandson, Ferdinand VII, encouraged by his wife, Queen María Isabel de Braganza, decided to use it as a new Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures. The Royal Museum, which would soon become known as the National Museum of Painting and Sculpture and subsequently the Museo Nacional del Prado, opened to the public for the first time in November 1819. It was created with the double aim of showing the works of art that belonged to the Spanish Crown and to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that Spanish art was of equal merit to any other national school. The first catalogue of the Museum, published in 1819 and solely devoted to Spanish painting, included 311 paintings, although at that time the Museum housed 1,510 from the various Reales Sitios [royal residences] including works from other schools. The exceptionally important royal collection, which forms the nucleus of the present-day Museo del Prado, started to increase significantly in the 16th-century during the time of Charles V and continued under the succeeding Habsburg and Bourbon monarchs. Their efforts and determination meant that the Royal Collection was enriched by some of the masterpieces now to be seen in the Prado. These include The Descent from the Cross by Roger van der Weyden, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch, The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest by El Greco, The Death of the Virgin by Mantegna, The Holy Family or The Pearl by Raphael, Equestrian Portrait of Charles V at Mühlberg by Titian, Christ washing the Disciples’ Feet by Tintoretto, Dürer’s Self-portrait, Las Meninas by Velázquez, The Three Graces by Rubens, and The Family of Charles IV by Goya.
In addition to works from the Spanish royal collection, other holdings increased and enriched the Museum with further masterpieces, such as the two Majas by Goya. Among the now closed museums whose collections have been added to that of the Prado were the Museo de la Trinidad in 1872, and the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1971. In addition, numerous legacies, donations and purchases have been of crucial importance for the growth of the collection.
Various outstanding works entered the Prado from the Museo de la Trinidad, including The Triumph of the Church over the Synagogue by the school of Van Eyck, the Saint Dominic Guzmán presiding over an Auto-da-fé and The Death of Saint Peter the Martyr altarpieces painted for the convent of Santo Tomás in Ávila by Pedro Berruguete, and the five canvases by El Greco executed for the College of María de Aragón.
Most of the Museum’s 19th-century paintings come from the former Museo de Arte Moderno, including works by the Madrazo, Vicente López, Carlos de Haes, Rosales and Sorolla.
Since the creation of the Museo del Prado more than 2,300 paintings have been incorporated into its collection, as well as a large number of sculptures, prints, drawings and works of art through bequests, donations and purchases, which account for most of the new acquisitions. Numerous bequests have enriched the Museum’s holdings, such as the outstanding collection of medals left to the Museum by Pablo Bosch; the drawings and items of decorative art left by Pedro Fernández Durán as well as Van der Weyden’s masterpiece, The Virgin and Child; and the Ramón de Errazu bequest of 19th-century paintings. Particularly important donations include Baron Frédéric Émile d’Erlanger’s gift of Goya’s Black Paintings in 1881. Among the numerous works that have entered the collection through purchase are some outstanding ones acquired in recent years including two works by El Greco, the Fable and The Flight into Egypt acquired in 1993 and 2001, Goya’s The Countess of Chinchón bought in 2000, and Velázquez’s portrait of The Pope’s Barber acquired in 2003.
The collection currently comprises around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of works of art and historic documents. At the present time, the Museum is displaying more than 1,300 works in the main building, while around 3,100 works are on temporary loan to various museums and official institutions. The remainder are in storage.