There was a quiet revolution at the Prado in 2013, when the museum rehung the galleries of paintings by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), making his masterpiece, Las Meninas, the central focus. They placed it among his royal portraits directly opposite the entrance of the large Sala 12 on the second level of the Villanueva building. You have probably seen reproductions of this extraordinary painting-within-a-painting many times, but the sheer scope and power of the actual canvas will blow you away. The focus of the painting is on the diminutive infanta Margarita, daughter of Felipe IV, and her delicate ladies in waiting (las meninas). To the right are two of the court dwarves Velázquez never tired of painting, one of them poking a dog with his foot. An enigmatic Veláquez himself is depicted working on a huge canvas, of which we can only see the back, and on the wall is a shadowy image of the king and queen looking on. What is Veláquez painting—the infanta, or the king and queen? Is their image a painting, or a mirror? Las Meninas is easily the most popular painting in the Prado, and you could spend hours looking at it, trying to figure it out. Of course, lots of other people have the same idea, and it is constantly surrounded by tour groups and guides seeking to explain it in multiple languages. If you want to see Las Meninas without the crowds, be among the first to enter when the Prado opens at 10am. A Paseo del Arte pass, or a print-out of an online ticket, lets you skip the line. Pick up a plan at the entrance, which includes the location of the museum’s 45 most famous paintings, or buy a more detailed guide with your ticket for 24€ all in.
Felipe VI ordered the creation of the Prado in 1819 to consolidate the royal art collections and to prove to the rest of Europe that Spanish art was the equal of any other nation (his queen had been impressed by the Louvre). While the huge collection has impressive works by Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Bruegel, and Bosch, it is the Spanish masters who dominate. You could spend all day browsing its galleries, now including a modern extension for temporary exhibitions, designed by architect Rafael Moneo. Some spend a lifetime. But if your time is limited, focus on Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya.
Velázquez was not prolific—he painted what he wanted, when he wanted. Some of his work was destroyed in fire and war, and only around 120 paintings and drawings survive. Most of his early portraits of Sevilla street characters ended up in foreign collections, but almost all of his subsequent paintings are here, in Salas 9A, 10–15, and 15A. Make sure you don’t miss his other large-canvas masterpiece, The Surrender of Breda, slightly off the beaten track in Sala 9A. The painting, also known as Las Lanzas, depicts a vast battlefield scene in the Eighty Years War between the Spanish and Dutch. The looks of defeat and compassion respectively on the faces of the central protagonists, Justin of Nassau and Ambrosio Spinola, represent a revolution in military painting, so used to triumphal scenes. You can examine the artist’s almost magical brush strokes here, with far fewer people than those surrounding Las Meninas.
Unlike Velázquez, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco (1541–1614), was extremely prolific. If you visit Toledo you can see scores of his brightly colored paintings of elongated religious subjects. The Prado has some 40 El Grecos, many of which are displayed in Salas 8B–10B. There are lots of luminous Virgins and saints here too, but the most celebrated is a secular painting, The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest. Painted soon after El Greco arrived in Spain, its solemn pose and the symbolism of his gestures have provoked much debate, not least about who the nobleman was. Some have suggested it is a self-portrait, others that it depicts Cervantes, but the most likely contender is Juan de Silva y Ribera, the military commander of Toledo’s Alcázar. His expression, and that of An Elderly Gentleman nearby, are so true that you almost feel you know them, or someone just like them.
Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) studied Veláquez’s paintings when he began working for the crown in the late 1770s. His early, cheerful side is evident in his paintings of countryside idylls (Salas 85–87), made as cartoons for tapestries to cover the walls of a royal hunting palace. It was his first royal commission. His mature work, especially after Carlos IV made him court painter in 1799, shows an understanding of character on a par with Velázquez. The Family of Carlos IV in Sala 32, painted around 1800, reprises the concept of Las Meninas, portraying an unhappy royal family in their finery and a king who looks out of his depth. In 1808, Carlos abdicated when the going got tough, and his foolish son invited Napoleon to tidy up Spain. Goya captured the horrors of the French occupation in Dos de Mayo, which shows the popular uprising in Puerta del Sol on May 2, 1808, and El Tres de Mayo, which depicts the executions of the Spanish partisans by firing squad the following day. These late paintings, which made his modern reputation, are found in Salas 64–65 on the ground level. The disturbing Black Paintings, daubed on the walls of his house in fits of depression and madness in the years after 1819, fill Salas 66–67. These nightmarish images, such as the heart-breaking The Dog, didn’t reach the Prado until the 19th century, where they became inspiration for German Expressionism and Surrealism. Goya’s journey from joyful picnics to Saturn Devouring His Son is one of the most astounding and disturbing in the history of art. In between, his portraits of the La Maja, with and without clothes (Sala 36), broke daring new ground.