There was a very quiet revolution at the Prado in 2013, when the museum rehung the galleries of paintings by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), making his psychological masterpiece, Las Meninas, the sun at the center of its artistic solar system. They placed it among his royal portraits directly opposite the entry door of Sala 12 on the second level of the Villanueva building. You have probably seen reproductions of this portrait of Felipe IV’s royal family (with a shadowy portrait of the painter himself) a thousand times, but the sheer scope and power of the actual canvas will bowl you over. The focus of the painting is on the young infanta Margarita (daughter of Felipe IV) and her diminutive ladies in waiting, including one of the many royal dwarves whom Velázquez never tired of painting. Las Meninas is easily the most popular painting in the Prado. (Before you leave, stop by the bookstore in the modern addition by Rafael Moneo to pick up a postcard of the painting. If you visit Barcelona, you’ll want a copy to compare to Picasso’s homage in the Museu Picasso.) If you want to see Las Meninas without crowds, be among the first to enter in the morning—a Madrid Card, Paseo del Arte pass, or printout of an online ticket purchase lets you skip the line.
Even before the rearrangement, there was a logic to gravitating first to Velázquez. Felipe VI ordered the creation of the Prado in 1819 to consolidate the royal art collections (hence all those portraits of Spanish kings and their families), and to prove to the rest of Europe that Spanish art was the equal of any other nation. He was right, and while the Prado has some priceless works by Fra Angelico, Titian, Rembrandt, and Hieronymus Bosch, the Spaniards dominate the collection, and we can’t think of a better place to see their work. No matter what else interests you, we suggest focusing first on Velázquez and then turning your attention to Francisco de Goya.
From 1623 until his death in 1660, Velázquez was court painter to Felipe IV, a king only a few years his junior. He painted the king as a vacuous-looking young man, as a thoughtful king in middle age, and as an aging ruler weary from grief and depression—a remarkable psychological progression that the painter witnessed firsthand, and perhaps shared. Goya’s early works, hung in Sala 9A, show great technique but little reflection. The more palpably human portraits by Francisco de Zurbarán hung in the same room may lack the brush strokes, but carry far more emotion. But Velázquez gets better as the gallery numbers rise. His religious paintings in Sala 14 derive amazing intensity from the geometric rigor of their compositions. The dead body on the cross in Cristo Crucificado, nailed up with four rather than three nails, as 17th-century scholarship suggested, has ceased to be either man or god—he has been transfigured into the devotional icon of Spanish Catholicism.
Most paintings by Velázquez were never seen by anyone but the royal family until they were deposited in the Prado, but Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) did get to study them when he began working for the crown in the late 1770s. For the rest of his life, he cited Velázquez as one of his most important influences. Goya’s 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, shows a burly king uncomfortable in his finery who would rather hunt than rule. In 1808, Carlos abdicated when the going got tough, and his foolish son invited Napoleon to tidy up Spain.
Goya’s cheerful side is on full display in his paintings of countryside idylls that he made as cartoons for tapestries to cover the walls of a royal hunting palace. It was his first royal commission, and he did his level best to be cheerful and witty. Head to Salas 90 to 94 to experience this youthful joy.
On the darker side, 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 on Principe Pío hill the following day. These late paintings that made his modern reputation are found in Salas 64 to 65 on the ground level. The somber Dark Paintings that he made on the walls of his house in the years after 1819 in fits of depression and madness fill adjacent Salas 66 to 67. These nightmarish images, such as the heart-breaking Half Drowned Dog, didn’t reach the Prado until late in the 19th century, where they became inspirations for German Expressionism and for Surrealism.
Goya wasn’t the first Spaniard with a fantastical imagination. At the opposite end of the Villanueva building from the Dark Paintings, several Gothic and Romanesque rooms radiate from a central rotunda. Visit Sala 51C and wait for your eyes to adjust to the dim illumination. The room re-creates a chapel from the a.d. 1125, Iglesia de la Vera Cruz Maderuelo outside Segovia. Animals high on the wall include the artist’s conception of a bear and an elephant—a beast he had heard described but had clearly never seen. The creatures are so abstract they could have been painted by Joan Miró.