Museo Nacional del Prado

The history behind Spain's national art museum

Posted by Murphy Shimamoto on August 31, 2021

This summer, I was fortunate enough to spend a month in the North of Spain. I had spent all my time in the small picturesque coastal town of San Sebastian and was worried that I’d have an incomplete view of Spain as I didn’t venture much outside the city limits.. However, due to a two hour flight delay and arriving at my gate five minutes after take off, I suddenly found myself with an extra day in Madrid. Frantically, I hopped into one uber after another determined to see every major tourist attraction. I went from renting a boat at Retiro to photographing the Palacio del Rey to exploring the Plaza de Mayor in the span of a few hours. Yet, it was at none of these places that I found myself truly moved. At each of them, maybe because of the time constraints, my lack of sleep, or the oppressive humidity, I was unable to appreciate them. I walked around thinking to myself, “I’m going to forget this tomorrow.” However, my fears of an impressionless Madrid were soon allayed by the Prado, Spain’s national art museum. It was here that I found myself moved, so much so that I decided to skip lunch and stay for three hours. To me the Prado, despite just housing incredible, thought provoking, and emotionally impactful art, was representative of Spain’s complex history. The Prado’s artist collection is closely tied to Spain's three hundred year period of decline during which Spain had few significant artists relative to the rest of Europe.

One of the first things I noticed about the Prado’s collection was how few Spanish artists it featured. Its long halls were decorated with masterpieces by the likes of Rubens and Baudry, a British and Frenchman respectively. The lack of Spanish artists can be attributed to Spain’s unique history in Europe. While Spain’s Golden Age, marked by the colonization of the New World and subsequent exorbitant wealth gained from this exploitation, brought about painters such as El Greco and authors such as Cervantes, artistically Spain remained artistically quiet in the centuries to follow. Subsequent Spanish history would be marked by Spain struggling to keep up with its neighbours.

While the rest of Europe was engulfed in the Enlightenment, Spain remained firmly attached to traditionalism and Catholicism. Nations such as France and England produced philosophers such as Voltaire and Locke, revolutionizing political thought. Regions such as Italy innovated artistically with the likes of Da Vinci and Raphael. Territories such as the German principalities found themselves on the frontier of ground breaking philosophical thought thanks to thinkers such as Kant and Hegel. Spain lagged behind. During this period of artistic progress in which a new European culture was being shaped, Spain opted out, fortifying its position as a declining power trapped in the Middle Ages.

Spain's political decline is also at fault for its weak artistic output. In the 1800s, while western Europe was industrializing, Germany and Italy were unifying, and Britain and France were colonizing, Spain again found itself deteriorating, clinging to monarchism and agrarianism. In a time when Britain and France could dominate multiple continents, Spain lost nearly all of its colonial possessions, having been chased out of Mexico by revolutionaries, South and Central America by Bolivar, and the Caribbean and the Philippines by the United States. Spain’s inferiority in Europe and on the world stage was most evident when Spain itself was conquered by an outside power. The kingdom that could, a few centuries ago, dominate the Americas found itself conquered by Napoleon. Spain would not be free for years. Only after a brutal, destructive guerilla campaign and Napoleon's defeat at the hand of other European powers would Spain begin to exit this period of constraint.

The hundred year period following Napoleon’s reign is remembered very differently in Spain than in the rest of Europe. For Spain, this was a period of political upheaval and global irrelevance. For Western Europe, however, this was a time of technological innovation and artistic achievement. Romanticism gripped the continent bringing about genius composers such as Ravel (French), Debussy (French), Wagner (German), Liszt (German), Chopin (Polish), Tchaikovsky (Russian), and Mahler (Austrian) to name a few. Impressionism thrived in the “New Europe” beginning in France with the likes of Monet and Degas and proliferating throughout the continent resulting in Van Gogh and Munch. Russia and Ireland reached new literary heights thanks to Tolstoy and Wilde while French poetry bloomed with Baudelaire and Verlaine. This was the time of European optimism and excellence politically, philosophically, and artistically, and Spain was left out.

The next century wasn’t too kind to Spain either. At this point Spain was so weak that it had no role in the First World War. The following decades were marked by stagnation until, in 1936, the country entered a vicious Civil War. Spain was in a vicious civil war, a war so devastating it would leave them debilitated for the next few decades.. Not even in the Second World War, the culmination of European history, did Spain play any sort of role. And during the Cold War when Europe was split between democratic capitalism and authoritarian communism Spain was Fascist. The facist party that controlled Spain kept the nation economically backwards, politically isolated, and culturally repressed. Spain would not be free of this regime until 1977.

There were, of course, some brilliant artists who despite Spain’s decline and history were able to make a major impact. One cannot discuss art without bringing up the names of Goya, Dali, and Picasso or film without Bunnel. However, these artists thrived in spite of the country in which they were born, not because of it. One factor that unites all of these artists is the fact that they left Spain. All three of these artists found their native country’s conditions to be so unfavorable to creating art that they needed to flee. One painting in the Prado that struck me was Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. The picture is strikingly bleak and full of gore while still clearly representing the insanity and insecurity of Cronos as he, out of a fear of losing power, eats his child. This painting can be read as a condemnation of Charles IV’s (Spain’s king under Goya’s time) incompentent and regressive rule which forced Goya to leave Spain. While, evidently, there were some Spanish artists who were able to make a mark during Spain’s period of decline, they often had to flee their country because of the political realities.

Spain’s history during their decline can be cited as the reason for the lack of Spanish artists throughout that period. This is why the Prado has so few Spanish artists in its collection as Spain itself, as a nation, missed out on three hundred years of artistic innovation. And even those talented few Spanish artists who were fortunate enough to have an impact fled their home country giving their masterpieces to France and the United States.

Notes and Clarifications: I went to the MOMA a fews weeks later and it had tens of pieces by Picasso and multiple Dali’s while Prado had one Picasso and zero Dali’s.