The Prado Museum, a 200-year story


General view of the Museo del Prado, by Outisnn (via Wikipedia)

Last November 19, the museum celebrated the 200 year anniversary of its opening. The University Library regularly receives Spanish art catalogues – including the ones issued by the Prado – but this time we have also acquired a selection of recent books (listed below) commemorating this occasion. Among them we can highlight Museo del Prado, 1819-2019: un lugar de memoria (C202.b.3782), catalogue of an exhibition focused on the museum’s history, organised by the institution.

The Prado museum is considered one of the best art museums in the world. It was originally created with a collection of 311 paintings coming from the Spanish Royal collections. At first, King Charles III of Spain wanted to create a Natural sciences museum, and commissioned the architect Juan de Villanueva the design of the Prado’s building. However, it was thanks to María Isabel of Braganza (subject of C202.b.4459), consort of King Ferdinand VII, that the building ended up with a different use. She wanted to create the Royal museum of paintings and sculptures, later called Museo Nacional del Prado. It is worth mentioning that Spanish art collections had recently suffered important losses during the Napoleonic invasion (Peninsular War, 1808-1814), including the Royal collections.


Copyists at the main gallery next to Murillo’s Immaculate Conception, stereoscopic view c. 1904, MNP (via Twitter, click to see enlarged)

Since its opening, the museum has always been visited by artists, scholars and intellectuals. To start with, they were mainly Spanish, but in the second half of the 19th century, the collections started attracting more foreign visitors, firstly Europeans and later from the Americas who came to visit and admire the collection. Many copied, studied and were inspired by the masterpieces held there. These visitors were particularly attracted by three great masters of Spanish painting, whose names are strongly linked to the Prado’s collections, and, more importantly, have had a tremendous impact in the art world up to the modern day: Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya and El Greco. The Prado is the institution holding the greatest number of works by these three masters, as well as Bosch, Titian and Rubens. In addition to Velázquez, we should mention three other major Baroque masters of the Spanish Golden Age, also well covered in the museum collections: Bartolomé E. Murillo, José de Ribera and Francisco de Zurbarán. Among many artists who made pilgrimages to study the Prado’s masters we can point out: Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Fortuny (see post), Sorolla (see post), J. Singer Sargent, Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, F. Bacon, etc.


Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656, MNP (via Wikipedia, click to see enlarged)

The museum collections reflect both the collecting interests of the Spanish monarchs and the history of Spain. Apart from Spanish art, the Flemish, Italian and French schools are well represented in the collections. In the gallery below you can see a very brief selection of masterpieces. Starting with its most emblematic painting, Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez; this original and slightly unsettling royal portrait, which has captivated generations of artists and has sought many interpretations. For Manet, Velázquez “is the painter of painters”.

A few more highlights of the collection are displayed below: The Descent from the Cross by R. van der Weyden; The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch; The Annunciation by Fra Angelico; Goya’s The Third of May 1808; El Greco’s The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest; Titian’s Charles V in the Battle of Mühlberg; Tintoretto’s The Washing of the Feet; Durer’s Self-portrait and The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables by Murillo (see more in the museum’s selected masterpieces).

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The Spanish Civil War marked an extraordinary chapter in the history of this institution (subject of C215.c.8100 and C216.c.2862). During the war, the best part of the Prado paintings, along with other important art works from private and public collections in the capital, were part of a surprising and fascinating story. As Madrid was suffering bombardments, the Republican government decided to evacuate the majority of the artworks.

After making this controversial decision, the collections travelled in trucks to Valencia under the supervision of a team of experts in November 1936, following the Republican government’s journey while they were losing territories under their control. They headed to Cataluña, first Barcelona and later the safety of a mine and a few other locations near the French border. As Franco’s troops had pushed forward into the Catalan territory, the Republican authorities decided to take the collections out of the country in February 1939, after signing an international agreement. An international committee of museum experts was constituted for this unprecedented situation and their support was vital for the good management of the travelling collections, in these extraordinary circumstances. 

Fortunately, these trucks containing the very best of the museum’s collection did eventually return, after three years. In the meantime they crossed France and were kept in Geneva. Once the war ended, Franco’s regime claimed the art pieces back and a big exhibition was organised in Geneva before the departure. With the outbreak of the 2nd World War, the return trip of the collections to Spain became a very urgent matter that was ultimately safely undertaken by train on September 1939. During the journey back the lights of the train were switched off by night to avoid a potential German attack while crossing France.


Finally, the Prado museum has never lost its public use, and has a fundamental place in the Spanish collective memory, as a major institution preserving the national heritage. Its holds vast collections of artworks, among them more than 8,000 paintings, around 1,300 of which are exhibited in Madrid. It is worth remembering that the museum also has many artworks deposited in other museums or institutions across the country.

According to Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez, former director of the Prado and outstanding historian of Spanish art, the Prado museum “represents to the worlds’ eyes, that which is most significant in our culture, and brightest and most durable in our history.”

Manuel del Campo


Further reading

Calvo Poyato, José. El milagro del Prado: la polémica evacuación de sus obras maestras durante la Guerra Civil por el Gobierno de la República. Madrid: Arzalia, 2018. C216.c.2862

Calvo Serraller, Francisco (ed.) El Museo del Prado visto por 12 artistas contemporáneos. Madrid: El Viso, 1991. CCA.65.126

Calvo Serraller, Francisco. Introducciones al Museo del Prado. Madrid: Fundación Amigos del Museo del Prado, 2015. 909:2.b.201.2

Colorado Castellary, Arturo. Éxodo y exilio del arte: la odisea del Museo del Prado durante la Guerra Civil. Madrid: Cátedra, 2008. C215.c.8100 (with a DVD documentary, AV.26.3095)

Elvira Barba, Miguel Ángel. Los mitos en el Museo del Prado. Madrid: Guillermo Escolar, 2018. S950.c.201.1185

Fernández, Tomás Ramón; Prieto de Pedro, Jesús. Historia institucional del Museo del Prado. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2019. C216.c.2860

Madrazo, Mariano de. Historia del Museo del Prado: 1818-1868. Madrid: Casimiro, 2018. C215.c.4976

Madrazo, Pedro de. Las colecciones reales en el origen del Museo del Prado. Madrid: Casimiro, 2018. C215.c.4977

Museo del Prado, 1819-2019: un lugar de memoria [exhibition catalogue]. Madrid: MNP, 2018. C202.b.3782

Velázquez and the celebration of painting: the Golden Age in the Museo del Prado [exhibition catalogue]. Tokyo : National Museum of Western Art : Yomiuri Shimbun,  2018. S950.b.201.5998


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