Ambling through a museum exhibition is a favorite pastime of CultureMappers. We appreciate art, the quiet introspection of looking at works crafted hundreds of years ago and imagining the back stories of the characters, subjects and locations of yesteryear. Though some paintings may look a tad formal, there's always a juicy tale behind each priceless artifact.
As Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado prepares to open on Dec. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, we wandered with Edgar Peters Bowron, the Audrey Jones Beck Curator of European Art, through 15 of the 100 plus works on view to understand why they reveal the essence of Spain, from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Flip through this audio photo essay, study the paintings and listen to Bowron as he shines light into the world of Francisco de Goya, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, among others.
Is there any question that the subject of this Alonso Sánchez Coello portrait is of regal lineage? Be it the exquisite treatment of the patterns in the textiles, the elaborate crown or the accouterment she holds in her hands, this court painter of Philip II of Spain had a gift for highlighting the tenor of the royal family.
Yet more curious are the two monkeys perched on the chamber maid's arms. After all, primates aren't native to the Iberian Peninsula.
Alonso Sánchez Coello, The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia (1566–1633) and Magdalena Ruiz, c. 1585–88, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Though religious storytelling is common amid the genre of Spanish painting, Titian chose to isolate the relationship between Jesus Christ and Simon of Cyrene — who stepped out of the crowd when Christ became exhausted and carried the cross on his behalf in the fifth or seventh Stations of the Cross — in his 1565 painting, Christ Carrying the Cross.
The tale appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not in the Gospel of John.
Whether Simon did so by choice or by demand of the Romans is a topic of discussion among scholars. But in this piece, Titian opts to evince a sympathetic fondness between the men.
Titian, Italian (Venetian), Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1565, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The small stature of Francisco Lezcano, who was at the service of Prince Balthasar Carlos, suggests that he suffered from some type of physical affliction. Experts explain his pose, which otherwise would be thought of as inappropriate or insolent according to the practice of Spanish portraiture, as indicating a neurological birth condition.
Rather than illustrating Lezcano as an oddity, Velázquez finds a tenderness in his gaze, nodding to a close relationship between the boy and the court. He, like other dwarfs and jesters, were considered part of the royal family and were treated with respect and kindness.
Diego Velázquez, Francisco Lezcano, The Boy from Vallecas, c. 1636-38, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
In the 1640s, King Philip IV was one of the most powerful men in Europe. In this painting, Diego Velázquez portrays him without splendid robes, jewels or a crown to suggests his pedigree — instead, the artist elects to depict the king outdoors with only his hunting dog and a rifle.
The sense of majesty emerges from the subject's stance, complexion and activity, as hunting was a regal privilege that typically didn't extend to the working class.
Diego Velázquez, King Philip IV (1605–1665) in Hunting Garb, c. 1633, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
This painting first appeared on inventory at the Torre de la Prada, a hunting pavilion on the outskirts of Madrid. What's unusual about this portrait of Mars, the mythological God of War, is his relaxed, aloof, withdrawn posture.
By looking at the details, including the armor, shield, sword and helmet, there's no mistaking his identity. Academia interprets Velázquez's Mars as a commentary on the Franco-Spanish War, a military campaign that ended with the Treaty of the Pyrenees, in which Spain lost territory.
Lesson learned? Make paella, not war.
Diego Velázquez, Mars, c. 1638, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The lamb is an emblem of gentleness, patience and faith associated with purity and sacrifice. It's a metaphor for Jesus Christ, the lamb of god, the Agnus Dei. Peter and Paul compare the death of Christ to the sacrifice of a young lamb, and John the Baptist mentions the offering as cleansing the sins of the world and the triumph of life over death.
Francisco de Zurbarán's still life captures remarkable naturalism and mysticism, the eerie fate of a innocent animal trussed for slaughter.
Francisco de Zurbarán, Lamb of God, 1635–40, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Commissioned by German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, Spanish artist Francisco de Goya rendered this oil on canvas painting of contemporary life outside of Madrid as a preparatory sketch for a tapestry designed to hang in the bedroom of the Prince of Asturias in the Royal Palace of El Pardo.
It may be that the oeuvre is an allegory to the instability of earthly delights, expressed in the contrast between the young woman and the old crone. Perhaps there are other allusions that are lost in translation with the passage of time. Yet the image can still be appreciated solely because of its technique, beauty and composition.
Francisco de Goya, The Crockery Vendor, 1778-1779, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
This unfinished painting of 5-year-old Don Francisco de Paula Antonio is one of 10 sketches prepared as a study for a collective portrait commissioned by the royal family of King Charles IV and Maria Luisa. That final portrait hangs in the Prado today.
What's notable here is the handling of color and the spectrum of hues that endow the subject with depth despite his young age.
Francisco de Goya, The Infante Don Francisco de Paula Antonio, 1800, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The doctrine of the immaculate conception asserts that physical contact necessary for human life, as Peters Bowron describes it, did not occur between Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary's parents.
The archetypal image of Mary — standing on a crescent moon, supported by cherubs as she ascends to heaven — typifies the importance of that tenet in Spanish religious dogma.
During his life, Murillo's kills were held to high acclaim. But in the 19th and 20th centuries his style was labeled as simplistic, superficial and jejune. Today, Murillo is once again recognized for the energy and passion that suffused his style.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Aranjuez, 1670–80, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
In the 18th century, Luis Meléndez was Spain's greatest still life artiste. In this small composition, he illustrates the prestige that hot chocolate held as a beverage, which was more important than coffee or tea.
Meléndez's ability to delineate each object individually by volume, light and shade, even with such clarity as the chocolate's paper wrapper and the copper skin of the serving vessel, is what curators admire about his hand and overall aesthetic.
Luis Meléndez, Still Life with a Chocolate Service, Bread Roll, and Biscuits, 1770, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
At the request of Philip IV, Sir Peter Paul Rubens dispatched dozens of paintings from Antwerp, Belgium, to decorate the king's royal hunting lodge, Torre de la Parada, in what is today Monte de El Pardo. The majority of these paintings' subjects center on the passions of Greco-Roman mythological gods.
Rubens depicts Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, as he forges weapons, shields and armors, evoking Homer's The Iliad or The Odyssey.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Vulcan Forging Jupiter’s Lightening Bolts, 1636–37, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
When Philip the Handsome died in 1506, Queen Joanna of Castile ordered the corpse to be removed from the casket and be placed atop a richly embellished bed. Remembering a story that she heard from a Carthusian monk about a king who resurrected after 14 years, she didn't leave his side in hopes that he would return from eternal rest.
Though trusted courtiers counseled her otherwise, she would often respond by requesting silence. That's exactly what Lorenzo Vallés portrays in this narrative painting.
No doubt Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad) had attachment issues.
Lorenzo Vallés, The Madness of Queen Joanna of Castile (1479–1555), 1866, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
In the 17th century, fresh cut flowers were rare and costly specimens associated with the world of extremely luxury. This basket of blossoms holds lilies, carnations, tulips, hydrangeas, roses and anemones.
Juan de Arellano was a gifted flower painter. He had a wonderful ability to impart a vitality to his still lives, appending bees, butterflies and insects that crawl, fly and buzz around the basket.
Juan de Arellano, Basket of Flowers, c. 1668–70, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz's treatment of the gradations of the blacks and grays was learned from studying the works of Goya and Velázquez that were on display at El Prado, which he surveyed daily while his father served as director of the museum.
Coupled with the amicable expression of María Dolores de Aldama, Marchioness of Montelo, there's a delicacy and elegance embedded in how these subtleties enhance one another, even in what appears to be flat surfaces of the background.
This friendly dame has great taste in jewelry.
Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, María Dolores de Aldama, Marchioness of Montelo, 1855, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
It's in this landscape, which is to this day owned by the Spanish crown, where Velázquez had set a number of his portraits for the royal family. The mountains have many important historical associations for the Spaniards and the Wall of El Pardo still stands proudly.
Aureliano Beruete painted en plein air and was accustomed to working for long periods of time without interruption. The Wall of El Pardo (View of the Guadarrama) captures much of the essence of the terrain, one which became a dominant subject in his oeuvres.
Aureliano Beruete, The Wall of El Pardo (View of the Guadarrama), 1911, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid