Here are 10 famous paintings in the Prado Museum by both Spanish and European painters. Above all, don’t miss these masterpieces if you’re lucky enough to visit.
This institution opened in 1819 as the Royal Museum of Paintings. It subsequently formed the Prado’s collection. As a result, the museum is not encyclopedic. Instead, it reflects the tastes of Spanish royalty. And what taste they had!
Spanish Painters in the Prado Museum.
1. Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit.
This is considered the first surviving bodegon, or Spanish still life. As a result, it is one of the most famous paintings in the Prado. Still Life with Game Vegetables and Fruit is one of six known Sanchez Cotan paintings.
Nonetheless, he is called the father of Spanish still life painting. As a result, Sanchez Cotan’s style – a strong light source illuminating objects set against a black background – heavily influenced Spanish painters. They subsequently influenced other European painters.
Although Sanchez Cotan enjoyed success as a painter, he abandoned painting in 1602 to become a Carthusian monk. What a loss for art history.
Read more about Juan Sanchez Cotan.
2. El Greco. Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest.
According to the Prado, 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, was the notary major of Toledo. Because he is a gentleman, he wears a lace collar and cuffs, pendant, and sword.
El Greco emphasized the nobleman’s illuminated hand and fingers. As a result, they have been variously interpreted as repentance, a vow, some rhetorical gesture, or simply a strong composition.
Explore other El Greco paintings.
3. Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor).
One of the most respected Spanish painters in art history, according to any art historian, anytime. Because the Prado owns fifty of all known 140 Diego Velazquez paintings, it has the world’s most extensive collection.
Las Meninas, too, is one of the most famous paintings in the Prado Museum. Importantly, it is not beset by Mona-Lisa-like swarms.
While art historians recognize Velazquez’s skills as a painter, his curatorial eye is less known. Velazquez advised Spanish king Phillip IV to purchase many Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian paintings. Because the King had such deep pockets, these works are now in the Prado’s collection.
Explore more Velazquez paintings.
Read more: Pablo Picasso honored Velazquez in Picasso’s series of 58 Las Meninas paintings.
4. Diego Velazquez. Surrender at Breda (The Lances).
In 1625, Spanish troops led by Ambrosio Spinola defeated Dutch troops in the city of Breda. This is the scene shown in Surrender at Breda. Spinola prevents the defeated governor, Justin of Nassua, from bending his knee. As a result, Spinola’s benevolence and generosity are demonstrated.
Behind them to the right are Spanish soldiers in front of an array of upright, intact lances. This not-so-subtle reference to power spawned the popular nickname of this painting, The Lances.
In the bottom right corner is a white sheet of paper. Painters often used this device as a place to sign their work. Because Velazquez opts to leave it blank, he suggests that he alone is capable of such a masterpiece.
5. Francisco Goya. The Third of May, 1808.
On May 2, 1808, citizens of Madrid revolted against the occupying forces of Napoleon. Subsequently, his troops retaliated by killing hundreds of rebels and innocent bystanders.
Goya captures this massacre and certainly captures the victims in Third of May in fine detail. The white-shirted man is terrified; he holds his arms upward, recalling Christ’s crucifixion. The victim in the left foreground, prone in pooled blood, mirrors this stance.
Read more about The Third of May, 1808.
6. Jose (Jusepe) de Ribera. Bearded Woman.
Lesser known among Spanish painters, Jusepe de Ribera spent most of his career in Italy. The riveting triple portrait, Bearded Women, demonstrates a 17th century fashion: it was common to portray people with physical or psychological abnormalities.
The Duke of Alcala, who was the Viceroy of Naples and a major patron of de Ribera, commissioned Bearded Woman in 1631. Felix and Magdalena Ventura were a married couple with three sons when, at the age of 37, she developed a full beard.
Although her appearance is startling, de Ribera creates a respectful portrait of the couple: for instance, 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 condition (hypertrichosis)and earlier life. Note the spool of thread and head of staff on top of the slab. Because these are symbols of femininity and domesticity, we have another instance of Jusepe de Ribera’s respectful portrait.
Other European Painters in the Prado Museum.
7. Rogier van der Weyden. The Escorial Deposition (or Descent from the Cross).
Originally a triptych, or three panel painting, Descent from the Cross survived a shipwreck on its way from Belgium to Spain. Lucky for us.
Most importantly, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping portrayal of grief not only in religious art but in any art.
This masterpiece is a living theater with minutely executed details in clothing and in the tear-stained faces.
Additionally, the composition is exquisite. For example, the curve of the Virgin’s body is echoed by Jesus’ body. The mourners are solidly volumetric and three dimensional. As a result, they seem to tilt into the viewer’s space, as if in an invitation to share this grief.
8. Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights.
Among the most famous paintings in the Prado Museum, Garden still baffles art historians 5 centuries later. Above all, they do not understand how Bosch developed a style so different from the leading painters of his time. These were Jan van Eyck (ca. 1370/90-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400-1464). Regardless, Garden is on any short list of the world’s most famous artwork.
Although forty Bosch paintings exist, none is dated. And only seven, including Garden, are signed. Although Bosch was a devout Catholic, he chose a triptych format. It was typically used only in altarpieces.
In conclusion, how baffling that this artwork from a devout Catholic features imagery that would not have been accepted in a church!
Explore Garden of Earthly Delights and its enigmatic images.
9. Albrecht Durer. Self Portrait 1498.
One of many Durer self portraits, this 1498 version shows him as a nobleman, not a painter. As a result, he sits in a pose typically reserved for those in high society. Additionally, he wears grey kidskin gloves, a luxury generally reserved for the wealthiest classes.
Furthermore, Durer documents a transformation that occurred in the Renaissance. Painters transitioned from lowly craftsmen to higher social status. Consequently, Durer put his signature prominently below the window. He clearly embraced this new standing.
Read about more Albrecht Durer paintings.
10. Titian. Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg.
Titian was the greatest portraitist of 16th century Europe. As a result, he became a reference point for generations of European painters.
In this portrait, Titian commemorates the victory at Muhlberg of imperial (Catholic) forces against Protestant ones.
Although this portrait seems straightforward, it has a dual symbolism: Titian presents Charles as both a Christian knight and as heir to the imperial Roman tradition. To demonstrate this, Charles wears the Order of the Golden Fleece. This order was a group of 24 knights who pledged to join Charles in preserving Catholicism.
When Titian made this painting, Charles, age 57, had abdicated and resided on his Spanish estate. Old and physically unfit, Charles had gout, a result of poor habits like drinking ice-cold beer before breakfast. According to contemporaries, he was also quite fond of eel pie, olives, spicy Spanish sausages and oysters. Suffice it to say, he was obese, not the dashing horseman shown here.
In short, this is a fictitious portrait of Emperor Charles V.
Explore more Titian paintings.
These are but 10 of the most famous paintings in the Prado Museum. Let us know if you admire them, and what other works should be added to this list.
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