Mexico-inspired collections at the Prado Museum in Madrid

The Prado Museum in Madrid celebrates 200 years as a reference point for Spanish art and culture and with the prestige of being one of the world's leading art galleries and receiving almost three million visitors a year.

The Prado Museum is the most important cultural institution in Spain and one of the five museums of old masters essential in the world.
The Prado Museum is the most important cultural institution in Spain and one of the five museums of old masters essential in the world.

In Madrid's Paseo del Prado, King Carlos III of Spain sought to celebrate the spirit of the Enlightenment with the construction of the Gabinete de Ciencias Naturales, commissioned to architect Juan de Villanueva in the 1780s.

However, Fernando VII, his grandson, decided to use the premises for the creation of the Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures, the opening of which, just 200 years ago, would channel his luck as one of the greatest symbols of Iberian cultural wealth, guardian of much of the art history of the Old Continent: the Museo Nacional del Prado.

And it is also everyone's home, the great gift the Spanish nation has given itself, since what was originally a collection conceived for the enjoyment of a few, of the Spanish monarchies, became everyone's heritage. And that is a privilege.

The art gallery, inaugurated to the public with a catalog of 311 of the 1,510 paintings from the royal collections it already housed, has managed to create a collection of nearly 8,000 paintings, including several of world prestige, such as Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez; El 2 de mayo en Madrid, by Francisco de Goya; El jardín las Delicias, by El Bosco, or Las tres gracias, by Peter Paul Rubens.

By inheritance of the tastes of the monarchs of the 16th and 17th centuries, who brought together as many works as possible from their favourite artists, today it translates into an atypical museum, considered not of paintings but of painters, being able to boast of having the largest collections of El Bosco, Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez or Goya, in some cases with more than a hundred works.

The enclosure presents a universe that was built with art that was contemporary at the time. Now it looks like a historical space, but it really vibrates with decisions made by kings recognizing in their days the brilliant talents of their own time. There's a strong lesson: support contemporary artists, because someday they might surprise you with their courage.

Photographic reproductions, posters, books, graphics, maps, audiovisual installations and even a fragment of an incendiary bomb that fell on the museum during the Civil War complete the museum's collection. With a history that runs parallel to that of Spain, with the height of the Civil War being precisely when it was necessary to move several of the works to Switzerland for safekeeping, the Prado assumes its bicentenary in "good health", with an average of 3 million visitors a year, making it one of the 20 most visited museums in the world.

It reaches its strong bicentennial. From the moment Miguel Zugaza became a director (from 2002 to 2017) until today, the Museo del Prado has been transformed from a slightly tired museum to a vital museum. The exhibitions are fascinating and attract a lot of people; the renovation modernized it.

And it has achieved a milestone within public museums: to be sustainable and involve civil society in supporting culture. It is the second Spanish cultural institution with the highest level of self-financing, with 72 percent, and its main source of financing is ticket sales and the support of the patrons of the Friends of the Prado Museum Foundation (with more than 30,000 members).

Re-evaluating the budget that the Museo del Prado receives from the State, and specifying the incorporation of the Salón de Reinos (Hall of Kingdoms), a building that will conceptually and spatially complement the enclosure, are among its remaining issues.

The most important thing is to satisfy the demands of an increasingly demanding and multicolored society. I am referring to different social groups with very different cultural levels: to age groups that do not identify naturally with the Museum, to people who are planning their trip or who know they will never come and who request virtual visits, social networks, etc.

Even demands from people who were traditionally outside the scope of the Museum, such as the blind or the prison population, for whom it has opened windows of participation that have brought happiness. The challenges are as many as the museum wants and can assume, and the museum is willing to assume many of them.

The first work bought by the museum, then the Royal Painting Museum, was "La Trinidad" by José de Ribera, for 20,000 reales. While one of the most expensive works acquired recently was the "Virgen de la Granada" (2016) by Fra Angelico, which cost 18 million euros.

More than 14,048 square metres of exhibition space house the 1,290 works exhibited to the public in 121 different rooms, including authors such as Velázquez, El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Bosch and Goya, the latter being the one with the most paintings signed and whose collection of black paintings is one of the greatest attractions of Madrid's art gallery.

However, the works exhibited in its busy halls only represent 16% of all its artistic heritage. The museum has a total of 7,988 catalogued paintings, of which 6,698 are on deposit, stored or available for temporary exhibitions.

Beyond Spain, Mexico, or at least its New Spanish past, appears in the collections of the enclosure through diverse pieces, such as a series of engravings (enconchados) dedicated to the life of the Virgin, or those that represent, in 24 scenes, the most significant moments of the Conquest perpetrated by Hernán Cortés, carried out for Carlos II by the painters Miguel and Juan González.

The technique of enchantment, of oriental origin, known early in New Spain, is a peculiar artistic expression characterized by incrustations of mother-of-pearl on wooden surfaces, tinged with tenuous layers of paint. "As happened with the paintings of feathers, Mexican lacquers, the sculptures in corn canes or the screens themselves, the enconchados acquired the category of alhaja, artistic objects sought and collected by a wide public and clientele, both from New Spain and the Peninsula," the museum states in its online portal.

Medals engraved by Jerónimo Antonio Gil, José María Guerrero, Francisco Gordillo and Pedro Vicente Rodríguez, or an oil painting attributed to Antonio Rodríguez -where Doña María Luisa de Toledo y Carreto, Marquesa de Melgar de Fernamental, poses with a small indigenous woman presumably Chichimeca-, are other works carved from this side of the world present in the Prado collection.

The museum's relationship with Mexico had a new chapter last year, when Jaime Cuadriello, a UNAM researcher, directed the Prado 2018 Chair, in which he reviewed the transformations of painting in America through the Basque Baltasar de Echave Orio, Sebastián López de Arteaga from Seville, Rafael Ximeno y Planes from Valencia and Juan Rodríguez Juárez from Mexico.

By Agencies

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