The Prado Museum, Madrid

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.

EH 2263S Luncheon at La Consula, Malaga, Spain, 1959. L-R: Bill Davis, Rupert Belleville, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Hemingway, Juan Quintana. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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…”

Lawn and tall trees in front of the west entrance to the Prado Museum

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is andrea-del-sarto-portrait-femme-lucrezia-da-fedePD.jpgPortrait of a Woman (or Lucrezia) by Andrea del Sarto

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


This entry was posted in aesthetics, Andrea del Sarto, architecture, art, art history, Correggio, Diego Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, great artists, Murillo, oil painting, Renaissance, Rubens, Spain, Tintoretto, Titian, Velazquez and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Prado Museum, Madrid

  1. wrjones says:

    Your writing never disapoints. Thanks for the google tip. Will be using it. I hope someday to walk through the Prado, but it is not looking likely.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Those numbers are breathtaking. Can you get close to the paintings mentioned or they’re cordoned off?

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: You can get as close as you want to. No ropes. The Prado wasn’t built to display paintings but as a Natural History museum. The lighting wasn’t good for two centuries but now they’ve improved it. There used to be glare on the pictures from the skylights–the only ones in some of the rooms. There were also leaks in the roof. I once found the great Velazquez room with rain dripping from the ceiling (and splashing up the walls) and puddles of water on the floor. For years there was no money for repairs. The advantage was that everything was so casual. It was as if you had the paintings to yourself–there was no protection, few guards. All the time you kept telling yourself that this painting you had in front of you, the privilege of having all to yourself, was the real, the original one that you had so often seen reproduced. This Virgin was made 400 years ago by El Greco in his studio in Toledo, that portrait of the king was made by Velazquez in his palace, and so on. You felt the presence of the artist himself and that of the great men and women who had stood right there in front of the painting, just like you. So exciting.

  3. zeladoniac says:

    Thank you for the google link! I’ll start exploring. I hope they start doing this with other museums. Can you imagine a 3D Bernini walk-around? How about a virtual catalogue of the Vatican?

    Not perfect substitute for the real thing, but not a bad one either.
    Someday I must get to the Prado…

  4. Peggi Habets says:

    The google earth tool is amazing. When you zoom in you can see every detail. You can even see a stiched seam running top to bottom in the Velazquez painting, as if 2 pieces of canvas were sewn together.

  5. Rich says:

    I can only second that. Simply amazing! Getting that near to the canvas of Velazquez’ Mars would probably set the museum’s alarm bells ringing! Or at least the admonition of an attentive museum guard.

    But like that I was able to adore those flesh tones, among other things.

    And your storytelling abilities show once more here, Swallows.
    How Hemingway revoked his first statement about “meeting the dead in museums” and how back in 1953, at a ripe age, he discovered those immortals.

    Yes, that beautiful woman by Del Sarto has something…may be the corners of her mouth there also contribute to the appeal.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I couldn’t find a better reproduction of Lucrezia but be sure she is better than you see her here. I knew only Browning’s poem about Andrea del Sarto before seeing her and it was like meeting her in person there in the Prado. You can get as close as you want to the pictures, by the way. I almost put my nose into Velazquez’s Christ Crucified after discovering the greenish tint to the background.
      Hemingway wrote about painters–there are some silly paragraphs in Death in the Afternoon about El Greco. He liked Cezanne and even had a couple of early Miró things. He always plays the brute so you never know just when he really is one.

  6. ivdanu says:

    Didn<t know about Hemingway and Prado, 100swallows! I certainly hope one day I will cross again the ocean and stop a few days in the Prado ( I am a great fan of all those cited by you, with a special mention for Bosch and BRUEGEL). Until then, I,ll follow your lead and see them paintings digitally!

    • 100swallows says:

      Ivdanu: Yes, Danu, Hemingway spent a lot of time in Spain. Remember, his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, takes place here. They show you photos of him in many places. He was in Spain in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, too and wrote a book about the bullfight (Death in the Afternoon). He came as a journalist during the Civil War and then again in the late ‘fifties, when he “coached” a young bullfighter named Antonio Ordoñez. You would certainly have fun in the Prado. But the Bosches and Bruegels you can study better in the big digital reproductions at home.

  7. ivdanu says:

    I will remembeer your suggestion about Bosch and Bruegel (I will search on my own but if you have the right links at hand, Please! send them to me!)

    My prefered book of Hemingway is A Moveable Feast and also, For Whom the Bells Tolls (not sur about the last word) and the movei with Ingrid Bergmann and Gary Cooper (I thing gAry Cooper – sure about Bergmann, wow!)

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Ivdanu! I think I saw the Gary Cooper movie but I remember the book better. I will look up those links. They should be on the post anyway. Thanks. I don’t quite get what happened–did they block your Yahoo account because of objectionable content?

  8. ivdanu says:

    sorry about «remembeer»… No pun intended! just kind of confused because the Yahoos got even my brand new account blocked, even if it as innocent as the virgins from The Perfume of SuskinD! just like that! (probably using the addagio better saFE,tha sorry…

  9. Sean Durham says:

    Great post – I live 2.5 hours from the Prado and still haven’t been there after rading this , I must go! thanks for the Google tip, I love looking at art on line, probably why I haven’t been to the Prado yet!.Thanks again

  10. bellsandwhistles says:

    I’m sure you’ll like it. Now in summer there are always a lot of people, but these are also fun to watch.

    There aren’t any rain puddles anymore on the floor of the Velazquez collection and by now now most of the pictures can be seen online, but still, since you live near, you ought to go.

  11. Tawez hodzi says:

    I like this

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