The institution we now call the Prado Museum opened in 1819 and was called the Royal Museum of Paintings. Because it was assembled from the royal collection, the Museo del Prado was never designed to be an encyclopaedic museum. Rather than showcasing objects from all eras of art history, the Prado Museum reflects the tastes of Spanish royalty, and their keen eye for finding artwork by famous painters.
Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602. Oil on canvas, approximately 27" by 35". Prado, Madrid.
And what taste they had.
While leading Spanish painters - including El Greco, Velazquez and Goya - are well represented, the Prado Museum also has numerous art paintings by other European painters.
Ten Prado paintings not to miss include:
1. Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit.
Believed to be the first surviving Spanish still life, or bodegon, Still Life with Game Vegetables and Fruit is one of six known Juan Sanchez Cotan paintings.
Not bad for a painter deemed the father of Spanish still life painting. For the following century, the style of Juan Sanchez Cotan - a strong light source illuminating objects set against a nearly pitch black background - would heavily influence Spanish painters, who in turn influenced other Europeans.
Although Sanchez Cotan enjoyed some success as a painter - records show that he lent money to his friend, El Greco - he abandoned painting in 1602 to become a Carthusian monk. What a loss for art history.
Read more about Juan Sanchez Cotan, one of the most remarkable Spanish painters.
2. Rogier van der Weyden. The Escorial Deposition (or Descent from the Cross)
Originally a triptych, Descent from the Cross survived, tradition says, a horrific shipwreck on its way from Belgium to Spain. Lucky for us.
It's hard to imagine a more compelling and gripping portrayal of grief not only in religious art but in any art.
Rogier van der Weyden. Excorial Deposition (Descent from the Cross). Tempera and oil on wood, ca. 1435-1440. 7'3" by 8'7". Prado, Madrid.
Rogier van der Weyden has created a living theater with minutely executed details in clothing and in the tear-stained faces.
The composition is exquisite - the curve of the body of the fainted Virgin is echoed by the body of Jesus. The mourners are solidly volumetric and three dimensional, and seem to tilt into the viewer's space, as if in an invitation to share this grief.
3. Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights.
Over five centuries after Bosch created Garden of Earthly Delights, art historians remain perplexed at how he developed a style so different from the prominent Netherlandish painters of his time, Jan van Eyck (ca. 1370/90-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400-1464). Regardless, Garden of Earthly Delights is on any short list of the world's most famous paintings.
Forty Hieronymous Bosch paintings are known to exist; none is dated, and only seven, including Garden of Earthly Delights, are signed.
Although Hieronymous Bosch was a devout Catholic and chose the triptych format often used in altarpieces, Garden of Earthly Delights features imagery that would not have been accepted in a church. By a long shot.
Explore Garden of Earthly Delights and its enigmatic images.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Center panel is 7'2 1/2" x 6'4 3/4". Each wing is 7'2 1/2" x 3'2". Prado, Madrid.
4. Albrecht Durer. Self Portrait 1498.
One of many Albrecht Durer self portraits, this 1498 version portrays him as a nobleman, not a painter, and in a pose typically reserved for those in high society. Note the grey kidskin gloves, a luxury generally reserved for the wealthiest classes.
Albrecht Durer. Self Portrait, 1498. Oil on panel, 20" by 16". Prado, Madrid.
The Renaissance transformed the status of painters from lowly craftsmen to a standing as intellectuals and courtiers. By his pronounced signature below the window, Durer leaves no doubt that he embraced this elevated stature.
Read about more Albrecht Durer paintings.
5. El Greco. Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest
According to the Prado museum, this is the best known of all El Greco paintings (I might argue for View of Toledo instead).
The nobleman, tentatively identified as Juan da Silva, notary major of Toledo, is identified as a gentleman by his lace collar and cuffs, pendant, and sword. Light is focused on the sitters's face and hands, which are accentuated and framed by the brilliant ruff and cuffs.
El Greco. Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, ca. 1580. Oil on canvas, 32" by 26". Prado, Madrid.
The focus on his illuminated hand and outstretched fingers has been variously interpreted as repentance, a vow, some rhetorical gesture, or simply as a compelling composition.
I'm more taken with the naturalness of that hand and the sitter's piercing, confident gaze.
Explore other El Greco paintings.
6. Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (The Family of Charles IV).
One of the most famous painters in art history, according to any art historian, anytime. With fifty of the known 140 Diego Velazquez paintings, the Prado has the world's most extensive collection.
Of all the famous paintings in the Prado, Las Meninas takes top honors in an exceptional collection.
Thankfully, it is not beset by Mona-Lisa-like swarms.
While Velazquez's skills as a painter are widely known (explore more Velazquez paintings here), his brilliant curatorial eye isn't. Many of the Prado's Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian paintings were purchased at the suggestion of Velazquez (and with the deep pockets of Spanish king King Phillip IV).
See the homage paid by Pablo Picasso to Velazquez in his series of 58 Las Meninas paintings.
Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), 1656. Oil on canvas, 10'5" by 9'. Prado, Madrid.
7. Diego Velazquez. Surrender at Breda (The Lances)
In 1625, Spanish troops commanded by Ambrosio Spinola defeated Dutch troops in the port city of Breda. In Surrender at Breda, Justin of Nassua, its governor, is stopped from bending his knee in a demonstration of Spinola's benevolence and generosity.
Behind them to the right and left are Dutch and Spanish soliders, the latter in front of an array of upright, intact lances. This not-so-subtle reference to power spawned its popular nickname, The Lances.
Diego Velazquez. The Surrender of Breda, 1634-35. Oil on canvas, approximately 10' by 12'. Prado, Madrid.
In the bottom right corner is a white sheet of paper, a device often used by painters as a prominent place to sign the work. In Surrender at Breda, Velazquez opts to leave it blank - as if he alone is capable of such a masterpiece.
8. Titian. Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg
The greatest portraitist of 16th century Europe, Titian was a reference point for generations of European painters.
In Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Charles V, Titian portrait commemorates the victory at Muhlberg of imperial (Catholic) forces against Protestant ones.
Although this equestrian portrait initially seems straightforward, it instead houses a dual symbolism (and a good deal of creative license) : the victor Charles is portrayed as both a Christian knight and as heir to the imperial Roman tradition.
Around his neck, Charles wears the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of 24 knights who pledged to join Charles in preserving Catholicism.
When Titian made this painting, Charles, at age 57, had abdicated and was residing on his Spanish estate.
Titian. Equestrain Portrait of Charles V at Muhlberg, 1548. Oil on canvas, 10' 11" by 9' 2". Prado, Madrid.
He was riddled with gout, a result of poor habits like drinking ice-cold beer before breakfast, and, according to contemporaries, of his inordinate fondness for eel pie, olives, spicy Spanish sausages and oysters.
This Titian portrait is pure fiction.
Explore more Titian paintings.
9. Francisco Goya. The Third of May, 1808
On May 2, 1808, citizens of Madrid revolted against the occupying forces of Napoleon. The next day, his troops exacted revenge by killing hundreds of rebels and innocent bystanders.
While the shooters are faceless and indistinguishable from one another, the victims in The Third of May are depicted in fine detail. The white-shirted man is terrified, and holds his arms upward, recalling Christ's crucifixion; the victim in the left foreground, prone in pooled blood, similarly echoes this stance.
Francisco Goya. The Third of May, 1808. Oil on canvas, 1814. 8'9" by 11'4". Prado Museum, Madrid.
Read more about The Third of May, 1808. See more Goya paintings, including his haunting series of 14 works called "The Black Paintings", the Duchess of Alba, and the poignant Self Portrait with Dr. Arrieta.
10. Jose (Jusepe) de Ribera. Bearded Woman.
Lesser known among Spanish painters, Jusepe de Ribera spent the bulk of his career in Italy. His riveting triple portrait, Bearded Women, reflects the 17th century fashion of portraying people with physical or psychological abnormalities.
Bearded Woman was commissioned in 1631 by the Duke of Alcala, the Viceroy of Naples and a major patron of de Ribera. Felix and Magdalena Ventura were a married couple with three sons when, at the age of 37, she developed a full beard.
Jusepe de Ribera. Bearded Woman, 1631. Oil on canvas, 91" by 72".
In spite of her startling appearance, de Ribera has created a respectful portrait of the couple: Magdalena's forlorn face and her husband's fretting demeanor elicit sympathy, not derision.
The inscription on the stone to the right of Bearded Woman documents her hypertrichosis and earlier life.
Note the spool of thread and head of staff on top of the slab: these symbols of femininity and domesticity solidify Jusepe de Ribera's respectful portrayal.
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