Romanesque (10th-13th c.)
From the 8th century, most of Spain was under Moorish rule. The Muslims took the injunction against graven images so seriously that they produced no art in a traditional Western sense -- though the remarkably intricate geometric designs and swooping, exaggerated letters of Kufic inscriptions played out in woodcarving, painted tiles, and plasterwork on Moorish palaces are decorations of the highest aesthetic order.
Starting with the late-10th-century Reconquest, Christian Spaniards began producing art in the northern and eastern provinces. Painting and mosaics in Catalonia show the Byzantine influence of northern Italy, while sculptures along the northerly pilgrimage route to Compostela are related to French models, though they are often more symbolic (and primitive looking) than realistic.
Significant examples are found in Barcelona's Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. Most of Catalonia's great Romanesque paintings were detached from their village churches in the early 20th century and are now housed in this museum. In Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, Pórtico de la Gloria is a 12th-century masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture.
Gothic (13th-16th c.)
The influences of Catalonia and France continued to dominate in the Gothic era -- though, in painting especially, a dollop of Italian style and a dash of Flemish attention to detail were added. In this period, colors became more varied and vivid, compositions more complex, lines more fluid with movement, and features more expressive.
Significant artists and examples include Jaime Huguet (1415-92), the primary artist in the Catalan School, who left works in his native Barcelona's Palau Reial and Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya; and Bartolomé Bermejo (active 1474-98), the lead painter in the Italianate Valencian School, and the first Spanish painter to use oils. Some of his best early paintings are in Madrid's Museo del Prado.
Renaissance (16th c.)
Renaissance artists strove for greater naturalism, using techniques such as linear perspective to achieve new heights of realism. When it finally got rolling in Spain, the style had already mutated into baroque.
Significant artists include Pedro Berruguete (1450-1504), court painter to Ferdinand and Isabella; Alonso Berruguete (1488-1561), Pedro's talented son who was not only court painter to Charles V, but also the greatest native sculptor in Spain; and El Greco (1540-1614), Spain's most significant Renaissance artist from Crete, known for his broodingly dark colors, crowded compositions, eerily elongated figures, and a mystical touch. Toledo's churches and Casa y Museo de El Greco retain many of El Greco's works, as does Madrid's Museo del Prado.
Baroque (17th-18th c.)
The baroque was Spain's greatest artistic era, producing several painters who rank among Europe's greatest. The baroque style mixes a kind of super-realism based on the use of peasant models and the chiaroscuro or tenebrism (the dramatic play of areas of harsh lighting off dark shadows) of Italy's Caravaggio with compositional complexity and explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures.
Significant artists include José de Ribera (1591-1652), the greatest master of chiaroscuro and tenebrism after Caravaggio; Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Spain's greatest painter, a prodigy who became Philip IV's court painter at 24; Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Seville's master of chiaroscuro, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82), Zurbarán's Seville competitor. Murillo created work with a distinctly brighter, more saccharine and sentimental quality.
Bourbon Rococo & Neoclassical (18th-19th c.)
Spain's turbulent late 18th and early 19th centuries are best seen in the progression of work by the unique master Francisco Goya (1746-1828). His works started in the prevailing rococo style (a chaotic, frothy version of the baroque) but soon went off on their own track.
Spain's neoclassicism was dry, academic, and rather boring.
Spain became an artistic hotbed again at the turn of the 20th century -- even if Barcelona's own Picasso moved to Paris. Though both movements were born in France, Spanish artists were key in developing cubism and surrealism. Cubists, including Spaniards Picasso and Gris, accepted that the canvas is flat and painted objects from all points of view at once, rather than using optical tricks like perspective to fool viewers into seeing three dimensions; the effect is a fractured, imploded look. Surrealists such as Dalí and Miró tried to express the inner working of their minds in paint, plumbing their ids for imagery. Significant artists include Joan Miró (1893-1983), greatest of the true surrealists in Spain; Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the most important artist of the last century; Juan Gris (1887-1927), the truest of the cubists; and Salvador Dalí (1904-89), the most famous surrealist. Dalí's art used an intensely realistic technique to explore the very unreal worlds of dreams (nightmares, really) and paranoia in an attempt to plumb the Freudian depths of his own psyche.