A vitalist like Ernest Hemingway stayed away from museums. He liked to meet the living, not the dead; he avoided the catalogued and the stuffed.
In the final chapter of Death in the Afternoon he describes the Prado from the outside:
“If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it. The Prado, looking like some big American college building with sprinklers watering the grass in the bright Madrid summer morning…”
Didn’t he go in?
Many times—the Prado was an exception to his rule. It wasn’t like other museums. Its paintings were the truths of some of the greatest observers who ever lived. You could learn from them just as you learned from the great writers. Seeing those pictures was multiplying your own experience.
Is the Prado so special?
Yes. Yes. Its walls are crowded with great paintings—more to the square meter than in any other museum in the world.
All museums are proud of their masterpieces. You walk by rows of paintings that are middling good until you come to the star.
In the Prado they are all stars. There are no fillers on the walls. Even the pictures that hang in the stairwell are originals by Rubens or Tiepolo or Van Dyke. The collection is so vast that most of it has to be permanently stored in the basement, out of sight. Of almost 8000 works there is only room enough upstairs to exhibit 1200—the crème de la crème!
With a starting selection like that, it is impossible to make an even more brutal one and say: “These are the top ten works”—or even the top 50. It becomes a matter of comparing the greatest artists who ever lived. Who is better: Goya or Velazquez? Their best works are in the Prado. Is Tintoretto better than Veronese? Dozens of their best paintings are on display. El Greco? Here is the best collection outside of Toledo. You don’t care for El Greco? Rubens maybe? There are 80 of his paintings here. Or do you prefer the Renaissance Italians like Fra Angelico, Raphael, Correggio, Andrea del Sarto, Titian? The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardenal, Del Sarto’s Portrait of Lucrezia, Correggio’s Noli Me Tangere, Titian’s Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg are each worth a trip over the Pyrenees or even across the ocean to see.
Yet many make the pilgrimage to the Prado only to stand before the Brueghels and the Bosches; and more than one hurry right to the room with The Descent from the Cross by Van der Weyden—a work so perfect you “almost” don’t need to see any other.
Hemingway, after a long absence from Madrid, went back in 1953 and hurried over to the Prado. “The pictures were as ‘solidly etched in his head and heart’, writes his biographer, partially quoting him, “as if they had hung on the walls of [his Cuban home] in all the years since he had last seen them. He pored over Goya, Brueghel, and Hieronymous Bosch, and stood long before Andrea del Sarto’s “Portrait of a Woman”, with whose face he had fallen in love years before.” Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker, p. 650
Read the exciting news from Google: many of the Prado’s paintings are being digitalized and can be seen on your computer screen as close up as you like. This allows you to see details you would not have been able to see before, even standing two feet away from the painting in the Prado. Wikipedia on the Prado Museum