The Prado Museum, Madrid

A vitalist like Ernest Hemingway stayed away from museums. He liked to meet the living, not the dead; he avoided the catalogued and the stuffed.

Bill Davis, Rupert Bellville, and Ernest Hemingway dining at La Consula, 1959 (Wikimedia public domain photo)

In the final chapter of Death in the Afternoon he describes the Prado from the outside:
“If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it. The Prado, looking like some big American college building with sprinklers watering the grass in the bright Madrid summer morning…”

Lawn and tall trees in front of the west entrance to the Prado Museum

The  north or Goya entrance to the Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Didn’t he go in?

Many times—the Prado was an exception to his rule. It wasn’t like other museums. Its paintings were the truths of some of the greatest observers who ever lived. You could learn from them just as you learned from the great writers. Seeing those pictures was multiplying your own experience.

Is the Prado so special?
Yes. Yes. Its walls are crowded with great paintings—more to the square meter than in any other museum in the world.
All museums are proud of their masterpieces. You walk by rows of paintings that are middling good until you come to the star.
In the Prado they are all stars. There are no fillers on the walls. Even the pictures that hang in the stairwell are originals by Rubens or Tiepolo or Van Dyke. The collection is so vast that most of it has to be permanently stored in the basement, out of sight. Of almost 8000 works there is only room enough upstairs to exhibit 1200—the crème de la crème!

With a starting selection like that, it is impossible to make an even more brutal one and say: “These are the top ten works”—or even the top 50. It becomes a matter of comparing the greatest artists who ever lived. Who is better: Goya or Velazquez? Their best works are in the Prado. Is Tintoretto better than Veronese? Dozens of their best paintings are on display. El Greco? Here is the best collection outside of Toledo. You don’t care for El Greco? Rubens maybe? There are 80 of his paintings here. Or do you prefer the Renaissance Italians like Fra Angelico, Raphael, Correggio, Andrea del Sarto, Titian? The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardenal, Del Sarto’s Portrait of Lucrezia, Correggio’s Noli Me Tangere, Titian’s Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg are each worth a trip over the Pyrenees or even across the ocean to see.
Yet many make the pilgrimage to the Prado only to stand before the Brueghels and the Bosches; and more than one hurry right to the room with The Descent from the Cross by Van der Weyden—a work so perfect you “almost” don’t need to see any other.

Hemingway, after a long absence from Madrid, went back in 1953 and hurried over to the Prado. “The pictures were as ‘solidly etched in his head and heart’, writes his biographer, partially quoting him, “as if they had hung on the walls of [his Cuban home] in all the years since he had last seen them. He pored over Goya, Brueghel, and Hieronymous Bosch, and stood long before Andrea del Sarto’s “Portrait of a Woman”, with whose face he had fallen in love years before.” Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker, p. 650


Portrait of a Woman (or Lucrezia) by Andrea del Sarto

(See Andrea del Sarto’s Evil Angel and read how dangerous Lucrezia could be)

Relaxing on the lawn of the Prado Museum

Monument to Francisco de Goya by Mariano Benlliure beside the Prado Museum

Read the exciting news from Google: many of the Prado’s paintings are being digitalized and can be seen on your computer screen as close up as you like. This allows you to see details you would not have been able to see before, even standing two feet away from the painting in the Prado.

Wikipedia on the Prado Museum


Posted in aesthetics, Andrea del Sarto, architecture, art, art history, Correggio, Diego Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, great artists, Murillo, oil painting, Rafael Sanzio, Renaissance, Rubens, Spain, Tintoretto, Titian, Velazquez | Tagged | 17 Comments

Andrea del Sarto’s Evil Angel


Lucrezia by Andrea del Sarto

She hangs on a wall of the Prado Museum in Madrid, ever bewitching.

Who painted her?

Her husband, Andrea del Sarto, who was crazy about her, to his great bad luck.
He was one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. Many thought he painted so well he might have rivalled the great Leonardo da Vinci. Everyone loved and respected him.

Then along came Lucrezia and Andrea lost his head.  According to Giorgio Vasari, who knew her, she was no good.    She mistreated Andrea’s friends and even his apprentices, and she brought out a shocking weakness in him.

What did she do that was so bad?  Maybe Vasari just didn’t like her.

For instance:
Andrea’s reputation as a painter was so great that the very King of France invited him to come and work for him. He gave Andrea a place to live and a splendid salary and treated Andrea as a personal friend.
One evil day Andrea got a letter from Lucrezia back in Florence. She said she missed him and was miserable. If he didn’t come right home she would—well, she would die.

Andrea ran to ask the king for permission to return to Florence. “It will only be for a short time,” he said. The king put on a very sour face. He had already had some bad experience with Italian artists.

Andrea had an idea: “Your Majesty loves great paintings, right?  Well, while I’m home in Florence I can buy some good ones for you.”

That worked. The king’s face brightened. He knew he could trust the tastes of one of the world’s greatest artists to spot good paintings, and he gave him plenty of money to buy them. “Hurry back, my friend,” he told him.

Guess what happened.  Andrea hurried home to Florence and was reunited with his beloved Lucrezia.  They celebrated their reunion with magnificent feasts. Lucrezia told Andrea that while he was away she had been dreaming of a beautiful Tuscan villa where they could live with dignity; and she  showed him her plans. He happened to have some cash (the king’s) and so he told Lucrezia her wish was his command. They began to build the beautiful Tuscan villa.

One day they ran out of funds.  Andrea woke up remembering King Francis and his promise to return soon.  “Lucrezia,” he told her after she had woken too. “I must go back to the king.”
“You’re not serious,” she said. “The king has already forgotten about you. And that money to him is nothing. Stay here with your little Lucrezia.”  And she gave him a kiss of the kind that simply paralyzed him.
He never went back and King Francis cursed him and all Italians too.

Lucrezia did one more nasty thing. When the plague was raging through Florence Andrea fell sick. Lucrezia quickly left not only the house but Florence too.  She had great fear of contagion. Andrea  died alone in the house and was found days later and buried just anywhere. Lucrezia, probably because of her foresight, survived that plague and forty more years of flu-s and other common maladies.

Supposed self-portrait of Andrea del Sarto (Wikipedia public domain photo)

See Robert Browning’s famous poem, one of his dramatic monologues, in which Andrea talks to Lucrezia on a beautiful Tuscan evening.

Wikipedia on Andrea del Sarto



Posted in Andrea del Sarto, art, art history, Beauty, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, painting, Rafael Sanzio, Renaissance | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

That Dalí Was Such a Clown

Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, Paris, by Carl Van Vechten
(public domain photo)

Did you hear about his little number at art school, for his final exam?

“Choose a period in art history and tell us about it,” the tribunal told the young dandy. He had shown up for the exam in a gaudy sportscoat with a gardenia in the lapel.
“No,” he said.  “Since all the professors of this school are incompetent to judge me, I’m leaving.” And he walked out of the hall.
That was the end of his school days, of course. They expelled him permanently.  He was twenty-two and had been enrolled for five years, usually ignoring the classes, once actually getting kicked out for leading a student revolt. That last term he failed Lithography, Color and Composition, and Drawing from a Model in Movement. He did get an “A” in Art History.

How could a young man act that way?  Who did he think he was?

“Why, I was Salvador Dalí,” he would answer. “I knew it already then.”

What did he know?

He had gotten started very early as an artist. At nine he was already drawing and receiving instruction from a painter friend (Ramón Pitchot) of the family. At twelve his dad enrolled him in a drawing course.   He painted too and proudly handed out his works to his relatives after each summer vacation.  Some were  imitations or copies of the reproductions he saw in his father’s books.  But he was fascinated too by his teacher’s Puntillist style and he soon began to experiment with color and ways of applying the paint.
“My experiments led me to cover my canvasses with a thick layer of material that would catch the light and create the sensation of relief and material presence. Then I decided to glue stones to my pictures and paint them.”

“Stones keep falling from our son’s heaven,” his dad used to say.

Dalí’s father (1925), painted while Salvador was still enrolled at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. Salvador Dali Cusí was a formidable character with a strong influence on his son.

When Salvador was  fifteen he and a group of friends published a magazine called Studium which was printed on wrapping paper. Dalí was in charge of a section called “Great Masters of Painting”. He wrote about his admiration for El Greco, Dürer, Goya, Michelangelo and Leonardo.  Dalí could write  as well as he could paint.

His dad wanted him to study law (Dalí, Sr. was a lawyer and a notary) but he did not stand in the boy’s way.  He took him to Madrid  for the entrance exam of  the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which the boy easily passed, then moved him into a room at the famous Residencia de Estudiantes.  There Salvador made friends with other geniuses like Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel, who were studying literature and philosophy. There was a lot going on in the world of art and thought and they were all excited about it.

Though for a long time Dalí kept to himself and stayed in his room. One of his classmates said he was “literally sick with shyness”. “Salvador was the most inhibited person that I had ever met,” wrote Juan Bello, who later became his good friend.

Did he learn a lot from his fellow painter classmates?

No.  “When I started out at the Academia, “ he said years later, “I felt superior to almost all of them. They were just discovering Impressionism [superseded two decades earlier by other movements in art], which they interpreted as an invitation to a sloppy kind of freedom…You go to a school like that to learn the formal discipline of oil painting and academic art, [not to horse around].”

He made this statement years later after he had become known for his classical technique. In fact, at the time, he was experimenting with every kind of style, as he had been doing since he was twelve and would continue to do for years.
Here is a Post-cubistic self-portrait:

Self-portrait at 23.  Dalí admired Picasso and Juan Gris and experimented with Cubism. He went to visit Picasso in Paris as soon as he was expelled from art school.

He worked day and night, filling his little cell at the Residencia with paintings and drawings, talking excitedly with his great friends about the latest ideas in art, literature, and psychology.  The Spanish poet Rafael Alberti remembered him years later:
“They told me he worked all day, sometimes forgetting to eat or arriving late at the lunchroom.When I visited his room, a simple cell like Federico’s [Lorca], I almost couldn’t enter, I didn’t know where to put my foot down since the entire floor was covered with drawings. Dali had a formidable vocation and at that time, though he was only twenty-one, he was an unbelievably good draftsman. He could draw anything he wanted to, real or imagined: a classical line, pure, perfect calligraphy, which though it reminded you of Picasso’s Hellenistic period, was no less admirable….”

By graduation time at the Academia Dali had already exhibited many of his paintings. His first individual exhibition was at the Galeria Dalmau in Barcelona 1925 while he was in his senior year. There were landscapes, portraits, drawings and paintings in several styles: Cubist; Purist; Post-Cubist. But there were also a few with a new atmospheric realism, with strange, isolated figures. The portrait of his father (above) was there. He had painted that a year earlier.
Picasso went to see the exhibit and especially liked this one. How could he not?

Girl from the Back, 1925. This is Dali’s younger sister, who liked to model for him. “The most beautiful girl I have ever seen,” said Lorca, who, however, fell in love with her brother.

His second indvidual show was just a year later at that same gallery in Barcelona. Among them was this Girl from Behind Looking out the Window, which generations of Spaniards have preferred to later Dali extravagances.

Girl from Behind Looking out the Window (painted in 1925)

These masterpieces were still experimental. Dalí had not yet found the subjects and style he became famous for. But this basket of bread had something eery about it, something striking about the light that seems to emanate from the bread itself, that caused much admiration. “It looks like a Zurbarán,” they said. Actually, now we know that it looks like a Dalí.

Basket of Bread (1926) (Fair use image)

So these were some of the young man’s achievements before he appeared for that final exam. He knew he could do this well and better. He believed he was doing something original and important, and he had the support and admiration of his father and his great friends and painters. Though by then he had overcome some of his shyness, he had to down a big glass of absinthe before walking into the examination hall and pulling off his little skit before the professors. Anger helped him too. Some of the professors had failed him, mainly because he had cut so many of their classes. He believed that he could use his time better by pursuing his own ideas than going to class. Unfortunately, this is the attitude of many losers in college and the professors have little patience for it. But this time…

The clown was right. He was a genius.

The  cockeyed photos of Dali’s paintings are my own, taken at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, where they are on permanent display and where photos without flash are allowed. Except for the portrait of Dalí’s father.  I photographed a reproduction of that in a sidewalk exhibit in Madrid.

My sources for most of the information are: Dalí by Dawn Ades, ABC, S.L., 2004, and Dalí Jóven, Dalí Genial by Ian Gibson, Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L., 2004


Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Dalí, drawing, great artists, Madrid, oil painting, painting, Picasso, Spain | 9 Comments

Velasquez Dreamed of Becoming Somebody

Nobody is ever happy. Take Diego Velasquez.

He could paint better than anyone. All the painters in Spain envied him.
Here is one of his early works, a boy and an old woman in the kitchen cooking eggs.

Woman Cooking Eggs (public domain photo)

Before he was even twenty-five he beat all the masters in a contest and became the king’s painter. He and his family moved into an apartment next to the royal palace in Madrid and received a royal salary.  Diego hurried out to buy a carriage and hire some servants.
That, when most of the country, including many painters, were living well below the poverty level.

Here is a boy delousing himself  in Velasquez’s hometown, Seville. The painting is by his contemporary Murillo.

The Young Beggar (public domain photo)

And his good fortune didn’t stop there.  He became the very king’s friend. They used to sit and chat. Not even many of the highest nobles could brag about a privilege like that. Palace servants and great nobles alike would watch Velasquez walk right through the palace and into the private quarters of King Philip, the most powerful man in Europe. Or they would see the king make his way to Velasquez’s studio, to watch him paint.

Velasquez made this portrait of his friend, King Philip IV

King Philip IV  (public domain photo)

Yet Diego got used to being gifted and lucky.  He wasn’t satisfied.   He wanted to be a gentleman too. It didn’t matter that he was a world-famous painter and an intelligent and cultivated man. In the Spain of his time you had to be a nobleman to be respected.   He climbed ranks in the palace service. First he became one kind of servant and then another. But that was merely rising in the “firm”.

What he really needed was a title. How do you get a title? You have to show that one of your ancestors was a nobleman. Diego spent a lot of money over many years digging up old papers and getting reports from friends and relatives but he couldn’t find a single aristocrat in his family tree.  When his nobility application stalled, he went to the king.  “Could you help me, Majesty? I’d like to become a  Knight of St. James.”

Though the king was the king and the highest-ranking nobleman, even his good word was barely enough to make the bureaucrats waive the noble ancestor requirement for Diego. And it was only in the last year of his life that he became a Knight.

One of his last paintings was this one, called Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor). He shows himself painting a big portrait of the king and queen (standing where we viewers stand, outside the picture) and surrounded by members of the royal household.

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) 1656-1657  (318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in) (public domain photo)

It is his biggest and maybe his only self-portrait.  He stands full-length. Perhaps now he was finally proud enough to put himself in a picture.
After he died, someone (his son-in-law?) painted the cross of St. James on Velasquez’s doublet.  The great painter was at last a certified gentleman.

Self-portrait of Velasquez in Las Meninas (public domain photo)

This is a  statue of Velasquez at the entrance to the Prado Museum, Madrid:




Posted in art, great artists, painting, Spain, Velazquez | Tagged , , , , | 31 Comments

Oscar Wilde’s Grave

You are a sculptor and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross asks you to make a monument for his grave. You remember Oscar’s wit as you heard it in his play The Importance of Being Ernest, and a story you read in school about Dorian Grey, whose portrait in the attic mysteriously recorded all the evil of his life. Maybe you know his fairy tales, too. The footnotes to a poem called the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” told you that Oscar had actually gone to prison for “corrupting” a youth, and had died in Paris shortly after his release, a broken man.

(public domain photo)

What sort of monument could you make to such a man—one of the most colorful men of letters of the nineteenth century, a dandy who lived among exquisite things?

Here is what the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein came up with:

Tomb of Oscar Wilde by Jacob Epstein, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris  (GNU Free Documentation License photo by JHvW (talk)

What the devil?
“I had in mind Oscar’s poem ‘the Sphinx’”, explained Epstein.
A little Egyptian, a little Aztec inspiration. Something as exotic as the sphinx Oscar talks about in that long poem (which almost no one has read).

Few people have ever been pleased with the big stone, though women love to give it a kiss and leave a print of lipstick there (see a page of photos at Google). The sphinx used to be complete with genitals and those were at first covered (even in famously prude-free France) and finally removed. Oscar’s poem did have a heavy erotic air and the work of Epstein mostly did too.

Was Epstein himself satisfied?
Probably not. He experimented all his life with styles—sometimes of the sort that whole cultures produce. “It looks as though this were made by a people rather than a single man,” said one of Epstein’s friends in admiration of Oscar’s monolith. And in fact some of Epstein’s big projects are so derivative or eclectic that his own personality went under. He has no single masterpiece—as happened to so many of the artists of the twentieth century, nor a readily identifiable style.

Except in his wonderful portraits—some of the best that have ever been sculpted. Have a look at his bronze busts of Joseph Conrad, of Churchill, of the singer Paul Robeson, of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and others. Here is a model named Kathlene:

Kathlene by Jacob Epstein (public domain photo)




Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Dürer’s Ingenious Lines

Dürer was famous for his drawings.

He drew complex pictures with lines alone. Woodcuts like this Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made him famous  all over Europe before he was even thirty:

Durer_Revelation_Four_RidersFour Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer (1498) (public domain photo)

How did he turn everything he saw into lines?  How can that work?  “There are no lines in nature,” says the Swiss art critic Wölfflin. “Any beginner can learn this if he sits down in front of his house with a pencil and tries to reduce what he sees to a series of lines. Everything opposes this task: the foliage on the trees, the waves in the water, the clouds in the sky. And if it seems that a roof clearly exposed against the sky, or dark tree trunk, must surely be able to be rendered in outline, even in these cases it is soon apparent that the line can only be an abstraction, because it is not lines that one sees, but masses, bright and dark masses that contrast with a background of a different color…”

A painter might say that everything is not lines but masses of color.

But Dürer brought it off with lines, all kinds of lines.  “His historical significance as a draftsman lies in his construction of a purely linear style on the foundation of the modern three-dimensional representation of the world.” (Heinrich Wölfflin, in his introduction to his 1923 collection of Dürer’s drawings.)

Dürer wasn’t of course the first to draw with lines. Linear abstraction goes back to prehistoric cave scratches. But he discovered new ways to use those lines. His way of rendering some phenomena has never been surpassed.

One thing that makes his work different from that of other great draftsmen is the double function he gave the lines. They had not only to define form and show movement but also to decorate. They were meant to have an ornamental beauty.
Other great draftsmen use lines to build a picture but their lines aren’t important in themselves: they contribute to the general impression, that’s all.  For example, a group of them intended to indicate a shadow will get the artist’s OK even if, taken for themselves, they are an ugly knot.  Dürer wants them clean, clear, and pretty.

At least he did once he had found his own way. When he was starting out he used the lines the way everyone else did. Look at the non-ornamental pen scratches he used to show the deep shadow of his hand and the pillow:

Self Portrait with a Pillow (c. 1491) (public domain photo)

Sometimes when he was older he even went too far. The ornamental pattern of lines seems to stand like a screen in front of the picture. You have to stare for a few seconds at the complex configuration until, a group at a time, the lines turn into those things they are meant to represent:

Durer  Christ_On_The_Mount_Of_Olives_1521

Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1521 (public domain photo)

Maybe Dürer’s historical significance as a draftsman lies in his line-drawings, as Wölfflin says.  But his best-loved drawings, such as this one, are done with mixed media: watercolors and a brush:

durer arco_dürer_1495View of Arco (1495)  Paris, The Louvre (public domain photo)

See this excellent article on Dürer as a businessman.


Posted in art, art history, Beauty, Dürer, drawing, Renaissance | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments


Laocoön  (Height 8′ or 2.4 m.) Vatican Museum, Rome. A Wikimedia photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009)


Works of art often have fascinating histories. And none like Laocoön.

It was carved in Greece, probably about one hundred years before Christ.

Years later a rich Roman bought it for his art collection and put it in his palace in the place of honor. It was surely the best work he or anyone in Rome had. The great Roman writer Pliny saw it and raved about it.

When the barbarians sacked Rome the statue disappeared and stayed missing for a thousand years.

Then in 1504, when Italians were digging in Rome to find old statues, they came across the Laocoön in a chamber deep underground. The old Roman owner had hidden it well from the barbarians.

Michelangelo himself, who was working in Rome at the time, dropped what he was doing and ran to see the great statue lifted out of the ground. He was impressed. Maybe he was jealous. In fact, the Laocoön is the ancient statue that looks most like a Michelangelo. (See Is the Laocoön by Michelangelo?)

Now it is in the Vatican Museum.


In the eighteenth century there was a famous argument between German philosophers and art critics on this statue. Read about it in  Why Didn’t Laocoön Shout?


Posted in art, great artists, Greek sculpture, Michelangelo | 9 Comments