MADRID — What’s striking about the 87 works in the Museo Nacional del Prado’s newly opened exhibition, “The Spanish Portrait: From El Greco to Picasso,” is the exceptional combination of somber subjects and the succession of artistic geniuses that have invested them with immortality.
Physically, Spanish monarchs through the ages were an exceptionally unattractive bunch, but that didn’t stop them from allowing some of the greatest artists to paint them “warts and all” — and to do so over many centuries. As Pope Innocent X complained to Diego Velazquez about his own portrait, “Troppo vero” (too true). That refrain runs through the Madrid blockbuster.
A portrait exhibition spanning 500 years is a visual narrative of the past. It can highlight the major historical figures of the age, it can identify emerging social classes or, as in the case of Spain, the rigid immobility of a society ruled unchangingly by the monarchy and the church for centuries. Black dominates the first rooms of the show, the unadorned black of both church and court dress.
This is portraiture in its purest sense. There’s little to distract from the flawless, technical virtuosity of the faces of kings and priests and aristocrats painted by El Greco, Diego Velazquez, Bartolome Murillo, Francisco de Zurbaran and others. And what faces. Sixteenth-century Spaniards, writes Javier Torres, the exhibition’s chief curator, in the excellent catalog, believed that “the portrait was considered as a representation or duplication of the subject who lost part of his or her personality as a result of having his or her portrait painted” — the inference being that some part of the subject’s inner self ended up in the painted likeness.
Brother Hortensio Felix Paravicino was so struck by El Greco’s lifelike portrait of him (circa 1609) that he wondered whether his soul inhabited his body or his picture. Even today, the priest’s eyes burn with fanatical fervor, and the masterpiece has so much penetrating realism that he looks as if he’s about to bound out of his chair. In contrast, El Greco’s unnamed nobleman in “Nobleman With His Hand on His Chest” is an ambivalent work.
The man is making a gesture that implies loyalty, but the cool detachment of his expression suggests otherwise: a more cynical attitude. Velazquez’s formidable “Mother Jeronima de la Fuente,” featuring its subject brandishing a cross, is clearly not a woman to be trifled with. At 65, she was on the verge of leaving Spain for the Philippines to found a new missionary convent. Elsewhere, the painter’s close-up of his longtime patron King Philip IV (1653) spares none of the monarch’s Hapsburg features — the long face, lantern jaw and thick lips — that marked the family for generations.
Inevitably, Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” painted around 1656 and a landmark in Western art’s idea of itself, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. The ultimate family portrait vividly depicts the little Infanta Margarita stubbornly refusing to pose for the picture, with her ladies in waiting trying to persuade her, the princess’s dwarf standing near, and Velazquez waiting at his easel. The royal parents reflected in the mirror, witnessing their daughter’s capricious behavior. Two centuries later, things brighten up a bit. In England, wealthy, nonroyal landowners were by now being painted in more casual settings with their families, their dogs and their horses. They were even commissioning prominent artists to paint their servants.
But a prosperous middle class had yet to emerge in Spain. Francisco Goya doesn’t do priests, but his core clientele remains Spanish royals and nobles. He paints not one, but two great, full-length likenesses of the Duchess of Alba, executed within two years of each other (1795 and 1797), and the Prado exhibits them together for the first time.
The earlier white-clad portrait is owned by the present duchess and has apparently always remained in the family. The later picture of the duchess ,wearing black, belongs to the Hispanic Society in New York. The exhibition also is a first for Pablo Picasso, whose work had never before been shown at the Prado (the museum’s permanent collection more or less stops with Goya). Three remarkable portraits (among other works) are on view. Featured in the trio are the intense 1972 self-portrait of Picasso as a broken-down old man (unshaven, eyes bulging, head skull-shaped and face distorted), the striking portrait of the Italian wife of the artist Canals (1905) and the more famous likeness of the Paris-based American writer Gertrude Stein the following year.
Because “Las Meninas” and some other key works never travel, this historical overview of the Spanish portrait is a truly unique event in the art world, and the Prado is giving it an unusually extended run through Feb 6. Yet the loan system that is the mainstay of blockbuster shows is what makes the exhibition what it is. About a third of the works come from other institutions.
Among them: El Greco’s “Brother Hortensio” from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Velazquez portrait of the poet Luis de Gongora. The Gertrude Stein portrait comes from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is in Spain for the first time. Picasso’s 1972 self-portrait is on loan from the Fuji television station in Japan. Murillo’s Don Justino de Neve — which has never been loaned before — is from the National Gallery in London, and Goya’s group work of the family of Don Luis (the brother of King Charles III) comes from Parma, Italy.
The works are not displayed chronologically, unusual for an exhibition of this magnitude. Instead, they’re arranged in a linear pattern designed to emphasize the continuity in both style and inspiration — in short, to support the theory of a genre of Spanish portraiture across five centuries. The layout works better in some parts than in others, but it’s generally both original and effective.
The pairing of Velazquez’s portrait of the “Infanta Margarita in Blue” and Picasso’s “Woman in Blue” a woman of very dubious reputation as its inspiration seems a bit of a stretch. But the grouping of family portraits around “Las Meninas” works brilliantly. In obvious homage to Velazquez, Goya puts himself and his easel in his picture, “The Family of the Infante Don Luis” (1783). Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo does the same in the lesser known but striking “The Family of the Painter” (1664).
The exhibition is also enriched by a sideline of fascinating curiosities. There is, for example, Jusepe de Ribera’s “Bearded Woman” (1651) breast feeding her baby. Similarly, the artist Luis Melendez’s excellent 1746 self-portrait is something of a revelation. Who knew he was good at more than flowers and dead fowl? Also, the churchman Don Justino de Neve’s likeness speaks of his dignity and aristocratic reserve — but its addition of a small dog at his feet wearing a red silk ribbon with a bell attached is somewhat puzzling. It apparently pleased Murillo that real dogs would start yapping at the sight of it.
WHAT: “The Spanish Portrait: From El Greco to Picasso”
WHERE: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
WHEN: Through Feb. 6
INFORMATION: Call 4 91 3302860, or visit on the Web at https://museoprado.mcu.es/.