Madrid’s three world-class art museums, the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, are all along or close to the Paseo del Prado within a kilometre of each other in what is commonly known as the Paseo del Arte. The most famous of the three galleries is the Prado, which houses an unequalled display of Spanish art, an outstanding Flemish collection and an impressive assemblage of Italian work. The Thyssen-Bornemisza provides an unprecedented excursion through Western art from the fourteenth to the late twentieth centuries. The final member of the trio, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, is home to the Spanish collection of contemporary art, including the Miró and Picasso legacies and the jewel in the crown – Guernica.
The Museo del Prado is Madrid’s premier attraction – well over two million visitors enter its doors each year – and one of the oldest and greatest collections of art in the world. Built as a natural science museum in 1775, the Prado opened to the public in 1819, and houses the finest works collected by Spanish royalty – for the most part, avid, discerning and wealthy buyers – as well as Spanish paintings gathered from other sources over the past two centuries. Finding enough space for displaying the works has always been a problem, but after fourteen years of arguments, delays and controversy, the €152 million Rafael Moneo-designed extension, which includes a stylish glass-fronted building incorporating the eighteenth-century cloisters of the San Jerónimo church, was finally opened in 2007. The new wing houses the restaurant and café areas, an expanded shop, an auditorium, temporary exhibition spaces, restoration and conservation workshops and a new sculpture gallery.
The museum’s highlights are its early Flemish collection – including almost all of Bosch’s best work – and, of course, its incomparable display of Spanish art, in particular that of Velázquez (including Las Meninas), Goya (including the Majas and the Black Paintings) and El Greco. There’s also a huge section of Italian painters (Titian, notably) collected by Carlos V and Felipe II, both great patrons of the Renaissance, and an excellent collection of seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch pictures gathered by Felipe IV, including Rubens’ Three Graces. The museum has also hosted an increasing number of critically acclaimed temporary displays in recent years. Even in a full day you couldn’t hope to do justice to everything here, and it’s perhaps best to make a couple of more focused visits.
To follow the route proposed by the museum, bear right after the Puerta de los Jerónimos entrance and head into the central hallway – the Sala de las Musas. From here you are guided through the early Flemish, Italian and Spanish collections on the ground floor before being directed upstairs. A tour of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian and French collections in the northern wing gives way to the Flemish and Dutch galleries on the second floor where work from Rubens and Rembrandt is to the fore. Back on the first floor visitors are ushered through the Spanish Golden Age collections with their heavyweight contributions from El Greco, Velázquez and Murillo before enjoying the delights of Goya which stretch up to the second floor once again. From there you return to the ground floor for Goya’s Black Paintings before concluding the visit with a tour of the grandiose historical epics that make up the remainder of the nineteenth-century Spanish collection.
The Prado is much too big for a single visit to do the collection justice; however, if you are pressed for time here is a list of some of the works you should not miss.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. A surrealistic masterpiece years ahead of its time.
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel. A disturbing and macabre depiction of hell by the Flemish master.
The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. A ground-breaking early Renaissance work.
Self-portrait by Dürer. Insightful self-portrait by the German genius.
The Descent from the Cross by Van der Weyden. An emotive and colourful depiction of the Deposition.
The Romanesque frescoes. Stunning frescoes from the Romanesque churches in Segovia and Soria.
David and Goliath by Caravaggio. The Italian’s theatrical use of chiaroscuro at its best.
The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco. One of a series of revolutionary Mannerist works by the Greek-born painter.
Las Meninas by Velázquez. One of the most technically adroit and fascinating paintings in Western art.
Artemisa by Rembrandt. The Dutchman used his wife Saskia as a model for this portrayal of the heroic queen.
Sir Endymion Porter by Van Dyck. A superlative work by the Dutch court painter famous for his portraits of Charles I.
The Three Graces by Rubens. One of the great classically-inspired works by the Flemish genius.
Charles V at Múhlberg by Titian. A magnificent equestrian portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Lavatorio by Tintoretto. Epic masterpiece depicting Christ washing the feet of the disciples, that once belonged to Charles I.
La Maja Desnuda y La Maja Vestida by Goya. A pair of supremely seductive portraits of a woman reclining on a bed of pillows, one clothed, one naked.
Dos y Tres de Mayo by Goya. Timeless and iconic images on the horror of war.
Goya’s Black Paintings. A series of penetrating and haunting images from the latter part of Goya’s career.
It is fortunate that the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, facing Estación de Atocha at the end of Paseo del Prado, keeps slightly different opening hours and days to its neighbours. For this leading exhibition space and permanent gallery of modern Spanish art – its centrepiece is Picasso’s greatest picture, Guernica – is another essential stop on the Madrid art circuit, and one that really mustn’t be seen after a Prado–Thyssen overdose.
The museum, a vast former hospital, is a kind of Madrid response to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with transparent lifts shuttling visitors up the outside of the Sabatini building to the permanent collection. Like the other two great art museums, it has also undergone a major extension programme – the French architect Jean Nouvel has added a massive state-of-the-art metal-and-glass wing behind the main block. If the queues at the main entrance are too long, try the alternative one in the new extension on the Ronda de Atocha. You can also buy tickets in advance via the website.
It is for Picasso’s Guernica that most visitors come to the Reina Sofía, and rightly so. Superbly displayed, this icon of twentieth-century Spanish art and politics carries a shock that defies all familiarity. Picasso painted it in response to the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Luftwaffe, acting in concert with Franco, in the Spanish Civil War. In the fascinating preliminary studies, displayed around the room, you can see how he developed its symbols – the dying horse, the woman mourning her dead, the bull, the sun, the flower, the light bulb – and then return to the painting to marvel at how he made it all work.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza occupies the old Palacio de Villahermosa, diagonally opposite the Prado, at the end of Plaza de las Cortes. This prestigious site played a large part in Spain’s acquisition – for a knock-down $350 million in June 1993 – of what many argue was the world’s greatest private art trove after that of the British royals: seven-hundred-odd paintings accumulated by father-and-son German–Hungarian industrial magnates. The son, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen, died in April 2002 aged 81. Another trump card was the late baron’s fifth wife, Carmen Cervera (aka “Tita” Cervera), a former Miss Spain, who steered the works to Spain against the efforts of Britain’s Prince Charles, the Swiss and German governments, the Getty foundation and other suitors.
The museum had no expense spared on its design – again in the hands of the ubiquitous Rafael Moneo, responsible for the remodelling of Estación de Atocha and the extension at the Prado – with stucco walls (Carmen insisted on salmon pink) and marble floors. A terribly kitsch portrait of Carmen with a lapdog hangs in the great hall of the museum, alongside those of her husband and King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía. Pass beyond, however, and you are into seriously premier-league art: medieval to eighteenth–century on the second floor, seventeenth-century Dutch and Rococo and Neoclassicism to Fauves and Expressionists on the first floor, and Surrealists, Pop Art and the avant-garde on ground level. Highlights are legion in a collection that displays an almost stamp-collecting mentality in its examples of nearly every major artist and movement: how the Thyssens got hold of classic works by everyone from Duccio and Holbein, through El Greco and Caravaggio, to Schiele and Rothko, takes your breath away.
Carmen has a substantial collection of her own (over 600 works), which has been housed in the new extension, built on the site of an adjoining mansion and cleverly integrated into the original format of the museum. It is particularly strong on nineteenth-century landscape, North American, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work. The ground floor is home to a large temporary exhibition space, which has staged a number of interesting and highly successful shows.
There’s a handy cafeteria and restaurant in the new extension; there’s also a shop, where you can buy a wide variety of art books, guides to the museum, postcards and other souvenirs. In July and August the museum opens a restaurant on the top-floor terrace: El Mirador. Advance tickets for the museum, a good idea in high season, are available via the website.