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.

20th Century

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.

Compare & Contrast


When Diego Velázquez painted Las Meninas in 1640, he changed the psychology of European painting. This portrait of the royal household of Felipe IV, which focuses on the Infanta Margarita and her maids, includes a reflected image of the artist. It is the star of the Museo del Prado in Madrid and remains a touchstone of Spanish art. Pablo Picasso’s obsessive reinterpretations, painted 300 years later, hang in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.

Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) Capable of both giddy pictorialism—as in his bucolic scenes created for the tapestries hung at El Pardo—and harrowing, nightmare images, Goya stands with Velázquez and Picasso in the triumvirate of Spain’s greatest artists. His late works painted during the French occupation carry a direct emotional force that was truly new in European art. The best of Goya’s work is found in the Museo del Prado and in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, both in Madrid.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) Born in Valencia, Sorolla was Spain’s premier painter of light and saturated color. Adept at portraiture as well as landscape, his most heartfelt canvases depict his native Valencian shore of churning waves, sun-modeled rocks, and innocently erotic bathers. Although some of his work can be found in the Museo del Prado, the best selection fills the Museo Sorolla in Madrid.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) The quintessential 20th-century artist did it all, inventing new styles when he’d exhausted old ones. Many of his early works as well as some seminal 1950s pieces are housed in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid displays many Picassos, most notably the iconic Guernica. The Museo Picasso Málaga also features a broad selection of his work.

Juan Gris (1887–1927) Working with a brighter palette and more mordant wit than either Picasso or Georges Braque, Gris helped pioneer Cubism. He never quit his day job drawing political satire for magazines, allowing him not to take himself too seriously. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid devotes a gallery to Gris and those who looked to his example.

Joan Miró (1893–1983) A poet of color and form, Miró is often categorized as a Surrealist. He did sign the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, but his sense of form derives more from Spain’s Neolithic cave paintings than the formal classicism of most Surrealism, and his lyrical celebration of color is unmatched in modern art. His work is best seen in large doses, as at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona and the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miro in Palma de Mallorca. Significant canvases can also be found at Madrid’s Reina Sofía.

Salvador Dalí (1904–89) The clown prince of Spanish painting, Dalí defines Surrealism in popular culture, employing a hyperrealist style to

explore a world of fantasy and nightmare. Dalí lived for a good joke, as the Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres shows. Many of his works are in the The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Eduardo Chillida Juantegui (1924–2002) Known mainly for his monumental abstract works in steel and stone, Chillida was born in San Sebastián and returned there from exile in 1959. Major collections of his sculptures are found at Reina Sofía and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao.


Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012) Nominally an Abstract Expressionist, the mercurial painter experimented with new ideas until his death. Among the first to incorporate marble dust and gravel into his compositions, he moved on to ever-larger objects, including pieces of furniture. Many examples of his work are in the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español and at the Fundación Antonio Pérez, both in Cuenca, and in Madrid’s Reina Sofía. The best collection of his work resides in the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona.

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