goya’s last palette

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando is one of the more discrete and under appreciated museums in Madrid.  And that’s a huge plus to anyone exhausted from the unending crowds jostling for viewing space at the Prado or Rena Sofia museums.  The permanent collection includes a good number of masterworks, too, with particular attention paid to Zurburán, Ribera, and the drawings of Picasso, who was once a student at the Academy. Goya was a member from 1780 onwards and the Neoclassical building boasts thirteen of his paintings, including two self-portraits and the famous carnival scene known as the Burial of the Sardine. A series of six paintings grouped together as Children’s Games are perfect examples of the artist’s vivid and spontaneous style but what I found most intriguing – aside from the quiet – was a display of Goya’s last palette.


say thyssen-bornemisza five times fast

Imagine being so outrageously wealthy that you run out of space to display your encyclopedic collection of art.  Then imagine convincing the government to spruce up the 18th-century Palace of Villahermosa so that you can establish your own museum – across the street from the Prado, no less -  and free up a bit of wall space at home.  In a nutshell, that’s the story behind the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the legacy of steel magnate Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and his wife, Carmen, a former Miss Espana and ex-wife of Lex “Tarzan” Barker. While the Prado allows you to focus in depth on the body of work from a number of great painters, the Thyssen gives you a stunning overview of art history from the Renaissance, to Flanders and France, German Expressionism, 19th Century North America, to Cubism, the Avant Garde and Pop Art. As if that were not enough, beginning in the late 1980’s local-girl-made-good Carmen started assembling her own collection of pictures.  So they built an extension to house the separate – yet complementary – Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which while particularly rich in late- and post-Impressionists also covers the waterfront, so to speak. It’s all wonderfully eclectic to say the least – and small enough to be enjoyable while not overwhelming. I think what impressed me most of all was how expansively the collection delves into 19th century North American and Hudson River School painting.  (What a surprise to see the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington’s cook, Hercules.) We are so accustomed to revering the early European masters that it’s almost shocking to discover they could take any serious interest in our own pre-imperial culture.


in prada at the prado

You could visit Madrid for the Museo del Prado alone and not leave disappointed, as few galleries in the world have as rich a collection of masterpieces. Drawn from the former Spanish Royal Collection, the walls of the 18th-century Palacio de Villanueva are adorned with more than 3,000 paintings by the great Spanish and European masters.  Goya and Velázquez may be the dramatic focal points, however, Ribera, Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Zurburan – one of my favorites – somehow manage to share the spotlight. I must confess a prior ignorance of José de Ribera, the 17th-century Spanish painter who spent the majority of his professional life in Italy. Influenced by Caravaggio’s naturalism, he was one of the pillars on which Spanish painting was built. (who knew?) From landscapes and mythological scenes to portraits and religious paintings, Ribera was as precise and detailed as a draughtsman. His later works – like St. Sebastian below – are also stunning in their luminosity. And for me, a very fortuitous Madrid discovery.




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