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Art of Madrid

The lesser-known wonders of the Spanish capital.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By MARK FALCOFF
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Madrid

Art of Madrid

‘Shadow of the Boat’ by Joaquin Sorolla (1903)

Visitors here almost invariably make the Prado Museum their first destination, and rightly so: It is one of the finest collections in the world, beautifully mounted and remarkably accessible. As Ernest Hemingway once quipped, people are surprised to see the Prado’s famous canvases “right there. .  .  . They get their money’s worth in Italy where the museums are rarely open and when they are, the paintings are poorly lit and placed well above eye level.” But the Spanish capital is also home to a number of smaller collections that are all but unknown to foreign art lovers. To reach them you need only a good city map and a ticket on Madrid’s excellent underground railroad, the Metro.

Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) was one of the leading Spanish painters of his day, known for his representations of gardens and seascapes. In fact, however, he was a remarkably versatile artist whose work included portraits of important personalities, stylistically somewhat similar to the work of his Anglo-American contemporary John Singer Sargent. His home and studio are now open to the public, and the rooms are full of examples of his work. Apart from the paintings, the house with its stunning Andalusian patio affords visitors a chance to see how a successful professional lived in Spain during the period around the First World War. Tiffany lamps, Art Deco furniture, and ubiquitous Spanish tiles provide a charming setting. Sitting on one table is an inscribed photograph of President William Howard Taft, who had sat for the artist in Washington; on another is a photograph of King Alfonso XIII, a personal friend, with a witticism inscribed at the bottom (“What do you think of the lighting here?”). Perhaps most interesting are the murals in the upstairs bedrooms which are rough drafts for those which Sorolla executed for the Hispanic Society of America in New York.

José Lázaro Galdiano (1862-1947) was a cultured Spanish gentleman who, together with his wealthy Argentine wife Paula Florido y Toledo, accumulated one of the great private collections of Spain during the interwar period. After his death it was bequeathed in its entirety to the state. Housed in what was once his grand town mansion, it stuns the visitor with the quality and quantity of the items, as well as the huge range of the collector’s tastes. The holdings range from small bronzes and reliquaries to exquisite pieces of French furniture, from weaponry to ancient coins. The most important acquisitions, however, are the paintings—not just Flemish, English, and Dutch works, but a truly remarkable collection of Spanish paintings from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. An entire room is devoted to works by Goya, including frequently reproduced scenes known collectively as Las Brujas (The Witches). This museum is, in fact, so heavily laden with riches that, like the Prado, it deserves repeated visits.

Several of the smaller museums are currently closed to visitors for ongoing renovations. These include the Museo del Romanticismo, the Museo Municipal (now renamed Museo de Historia de Madrid), and Museo Cerralbo. Their future availability to visitors is uncertain, but prospective travelers should keep them in mind as they may reopen at any time. The first was the home of Don Benigno de la Vega-Inclán, founder of the country’s network of paradores, that is, state-owned luxury hotels. In addition to its ballroom and grand salon, it is famous for a collection of costumbrista paintings that depict everyday life in Andalusia and Madrid, often showing local festivals and traditions. The Museo Municipal is currently swathed in canvas while crews renovate the building beneath; the authorities have commissioned a reproduction of its baroque façade on the surface of the fabric so that visitors will have some idea of what lies beneath. The collection is rich in maps of Madrid, as well as a model of the capital as it appeared in about 1830. The Museo Cerralbo is a magnificent palace—complete with mirrored ballroom, crystal chandeliers and wrought-iron balustrades—situated on a quiet street not far off the city’s busy Gran Vía. Like the Fundación Lázaro Galdiano, it is home to major Spanish paintings, including El Greco’s The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, along with works by Ribera, Zurbarán, and Goya. 

One can only wish the renovators godspeed in their work.

Mark Falcoff is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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