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The Graphoscope

22.06.2004 - 26.09.2004

Since the mid-nineteenth century, photography has been a key reference point for our knowledge of the past, including that of the history of the Museo del Prado. The way the Museum has been captured by the camera is the subject of the present exhibition, which presents the Prado's photographic collection for the first time. The photographs on display reveal the changing criteria for the display of works of art from the time of the Museum's opening in 1819 up to the first architectural expansion project which began in 1913 and was completed in 1920. The exhibition also shows how photographs promoted the fame and reputation of the Museum so that it became one of the most important and best known of all picture galleries.

Particularly important contributions were made in this respect by J. Laurent y Cía., the largest photographic company in Spain, whose archive, featuring photographs of Spanish views and monuments, was comparable to the most important European archives of the same type. Jean Laurent is documented in Spain from 1856, and from 1863 he worked under the name of J. Laurent y Cia. Laurent started to take photographs in the Prado in that year, and was its sole photographer between 1879 and 1890. For this reason his catalogues, published in Madrid and Paris, were a crucial element in the study and international dissemination of the Spanish artistic heritage.

The nucleus of the exhibition is the Graphoscope: a manually rotated mechanism which had a continuous panoramic photograph inside it of the Museum's Central Gallery taken by J. Laurent y Cía., between 1882 and 1883. This example is the only known Graphoscope and can be considered exceptionally important for its artistic and documentary value. The photograph shown inside the mechanism which is 30 cm high and 10m 41.5 cm long comprises 72 numbered shots, printed out on albumen paper and fixed onto a canvas backing.

The panorama depicts the Museum's Central Gallery, which displayed the most important paintings of the Spanish and Italian Schools, apart from those shown in the Sala de la Reina Isabel which housed a selection of the Museum's masterpieces. The paintings covered the walls completely, from the dado to the upper cornice, and some even hung above this. The works were arranged according to the two great national schools but was not sub-divided by regions, nor did it follow strict chronological criteria. It was therefore common to find a mixture of paintings completely filling the walls, with the gaps between the large and important works filled by smaller paintings, and most groupings made simply for reasons of symmetry. The Central Gallery was reached from a room known as the Sala de los Contemporáneos, which displayed the most important paintings by Goya, together with works by other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Spanish painters. The first section of the Gallery was devoted to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish painters, notably works by Ribera, Murillo, and Velázquez, who occupied the area closest to the Sala de la Reina Isabel. The second section was taken up by Italian paintings, with the main area hung with works by Raphael and between them a group of canvases by Titian and other Venetian painters. Next came a mixed group of Italian paintings, mainly Bolognese.



Visions of a building

Visions of a building
View of the Prado’s main façade
C. Clifford

Before the Museum

Designed on the initiative of Charles III to house a Museum and Academy of Natural Sciences, Villanueva's construction contained three buildings in one, each one autonomous with regard to function. These were organised along longitudinal axes and had separate entrances. The three parts were, respectively, the lower floor, which one entered at the south end of the building; the upper floor, with its entrance at the north end which was approached via a long ramp; and the large apse-ended room whose axis was perpendicular to these and had its entrance in the monumental Doric portico that looked out onto the Paseo del Prado. On Villanueva's death, the most important part of the building that remained incomplete was the large apse-ended gallery which was not ready for showing works of art until 1853. At this point it was named the Sala de la Reina Isabel.

The first images: from painting to lithography

The first images: from painting to lithography
North facade of the Prado Museum
J. Laurent y Cia.
Museo Nacional del Prado

Villanueva´s building became a Royal Museum and the building soon established itself as a key reference point in the city. This was reflected in its appearing in a large number of paintings, prints and drawings. Although the interior was sometimes represented, most of these views were of the exterior of the building, emphasising its monumental character which established its autonomous presence within the urban layout of the capital city.

Photographic views

Photographic views
View of the Prado’s Central Gallery
J. Laurent y Cia.
Museo Nacional del Prado

Photography became the natural successor to lithography as the means for disseminating images of important buildings. It was thus common that photographers working in the second half of the nineteenth century, such as Clifford and Laurent, used viewpoints of the Museum similar to those found in the works of painters and lithographers of the first half of the century. The evolution of the various photographic techniques is evident in this group of views of the Villanueva building, from the daguerreotype to the albumen print, and including the delicate salt paper print.

The photographic reproduction of the Museum´s colletions

The photographic reproduction of the Museum´s colletions
Piece of the Dauphin’s Treasure
J. Clifford
Museo Nacional del Prado

The Treasure of the Dauphin

The remarkable quality of the Treasure of the Dauphinmeant that from an early date it was given its own room for display. In 1839, at a time when the Museum was expanding, it was installed in niches in the corners of the octagonal room located at one end of the suite of galleries on the west side of the ground floor which now house classical sculpture. Its importance, recognized by the British scholars who commissioned the first photographic reproductions in 1863, meant that in 1867 it was moved to the Central Gallery where it remained in display cases until well into the twentieth century. Its artistic importance meant that it was photographed from early on, while from the late 1870s onwards images of the Treasure appeared in Laurent y Cia´s photographic catalogues.


While the importance of the Prado´s sculpture collections was not comparable to that of its paintings, the uniqueness of some of the works meant that they were photographed at a very early date. As with the paintings galleries, the sculpture rooms were changed numerous times in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the collections were eventually arranged according to art historical criteria.


Photography replaced engraving and lithography as the medium to reproduce the paintings in the Prado´s collection. The first recorded request for permission to reproduce the paintings dates from 1863 and from that point on Laurent and his successors in the business would contribute to disseminating knowledge of the Museum´s collections both at home and abroad. Different formats were available for different purposes, including post-card souvenirs for visitors, de-luxe formats for collectors that resembled prints, and working and study prints for curators and scholars.

J. Laurent and the Graphoscope

J. Laurent and the Graphoscope
Charles V and the Fury, by Leoni
J. Laurent y Cia.
Museo Nacional del Prado

On 24 February 1882, Alfonso Roswag y Nogier, son-in-law of Jean Laurent, and partner in the firm of J. Laurent y Cía., presented a patent registration request at the registry in the Conservatory of Arts in Madrid, for a device entitled "The Graphoscope or rotation box, for use with all class of views and poster-advertisements", whose purpose was "to place inside a box or cabinet a relatively large series of views or posters-advertisements and to make them appear successively before the viewer´s eyes, with the ability to show them in both directions [...] This device consists of a box in the form of a cabinet, closed on one, two or four of its main sides by flat planes of glass, before one of which appears a view or a poster-advertisement, which is changed manually with a handle [...]". The Museo del Prado has the only Graphoscope of this type known today - possibly the only one ever made- as the patent, granted on 3 June 1882, was suspended for non-payment on 4 June 1883.´

Albumen print, panorama of 72 shots. Divided into 9 fold-out sections and bound in an album in the following order: 2 views of the Sala de Contemporáneos; 2 views of the north part of the Central Gallery with Spanish paintings; 2 views of the central section of the Central Gallery, with the entrance to the Sala de la Reina Isabel and the opposite wall; 2 views of the south part of the Central Gallery with Italian paintings; 1 view of the entrance to the French paintings gallery.

Jean Laurent´s activities as a photographer in Spain are documented from 1856, while from 1863 onwards he appears under the name of J. Laurent y Cia. From that year on he began to photograph paintings in the Museo del Prado, and was sole photographer there between 1879 and 1890. For this reason his catalogues, published in Madrid and Paris (where he had shops), became an essential reference point for the study and international dissemination of the collection. Laurent y Cía., was the largest photography firm in Spain and its photographic archive, comprising images of Spanish monuments and views, was comparable to the other leading European archives, such as those of Braun in Alsace or Alinari in Florence.

An evolving Museum 1879-1920

An evolving Museum 1879-1920
View of the Main Gallery with Copyists
Underwood and Underwood
Stereoscopy, 90 x 178 mm
Madrid Antiguo Collection

The display of the collections of the Museo del Prado has evolved continuously, as have the different historical and artistic criteria applied to them, resulting in numerous changes to the location of the paintings and sculptures. Between 1879 and 1920 important architectural alterations were carried out, such as the re-modelling of the Sala de la Reina Isabel and the compartmentalisation of the galleries in the north and south sections. These alterations combined with new critical criteria, affected the arrangement of important spaces such as the Sala de la Reina Isabel, which changed from displaying masterpieces to a monographic display of works by Velázquez. For its part, the Central Gallery, which originally displayed Italian and Spanish works, was hung entirely with paintings by Spanish artists, and then with sixteenth-century Venetian and seventeenth-century Flemish works.


El grafoscopio (facsimile)

In addition, a 10-metre facsimile of the photograph of the Central Gallery is being produced. Both are funded by the Fundación de los Amigos del Museo del Prado.


El grafoscopio. Panorama de la Galería Central del Museo del Prado (1882-1883)


J.Laurent & Cía.


Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2004


Tela con estampación en las dos cubiertas


57 €


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