If you're like I am, when you go to an art museum, you want to see paintings. I suppose it's a mark of the narrowness of our vision as artists that we're primarily interested in our own medium over all others. But it always seems to me that before I can get to the really "good" stuff - the paintings - I have to plow through a dozen or more rooms of antique furniture, suits of armour, marble busts, delicate china, and stemware. It's all very pretty and no doubt enlightening, but I soon begin to feel like a little kid at Macy's having to search through luggage, cosmetics, and lingerie looking for the toy department. It's that way in virtually every museum in this country and especially so in the largest ones, the mega-museums put together by art experts trying to fill all the "holes" in their presentation of art relics from the world over in a comprehensive panorama of the ages. For the most part, there is incredible breadth but very little depth.
If all this bothers you too, then hop the next plane to Spain and visit the Prado. There you'll find more paintings than you can ever hope to absorb in a lifetime. Okay, there are a few suits of armour and marble busts too, but they're just for decoration. Amongst the more than 9,000 paintings (only 1,500 of which can ever be displayed at one time) you'll find such an embarrassment of riches as to be almost unbelievable. Imagine: 35 paintings by El Greco, 50 by Velázquez, 40 by Murillo, 8 by Raphael, 36 by Titian, 25 by Tintoretto, and an incredible 118 by Goya, all in the same building. Okay, it's a huge building, but all the same, what a stash!
The Prado is, indeed, huge. The building was begun in 1785, one of the first in the world dedicated from the ground up to be a museum - albeit a museum of the natural sciences. Political strife and uncertainties at the time slowed and delayed construction. Around 1791, in perhaps a sort of national me-tooism, as the French began to contemplate the old Louvre palace as a museum of fine arts, the Spanish Constituent Assembly, seemingly as an afterthought, dedicated a small part of the "palace of science" as an art museum, ordering several paintings by Murillo to be brought in for display. Even as the building was well underway, the invasion of the French under Bonaparte kind of screwed things up. Napoleon insisted in stabling his horses in the ground floor "royal salons." After Napoleon went back to France victorious, he left his brother Joseph in charge of the country and when the Czech painter Anton Mengs suggested a national gallery of art, brother Joe readily agreed. In 1810, as the Prado neared completion, it was designated a national gallery of art to house the royal collection. The building opened to the public in 1819.
In very large part, the Prado collection is a reflection of the tastes of the polyglot of Spanish kings and queens over the past 500 years (although there's virtually nothing to be found there from the past 100 years). They had a liking for Spanish painters, of course, but also the Italians, the Germans, and certain pieces of Flemish art as well. By contrast, you'll find little in the way of English painting there, or French, or Dutch owing as much to the historic conflicts between Spain and these countries than to any dislike of the artists themselves. Be that as it may, the wealth and exquisite good tastes of Spanish royalty during the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries more than compensates for what American curators might view as shortcomings in certain areas. But, quite frankly, it's simply not something the Spanish worry about. When you can point to 86 paintings by Rubens, another 25 van Dycks, and even 15 by Poussin (he's French), the lack of Reynolds and Bouguereaus and Rembrandts (they own one I think) is hardly worth noting.
In the presence of Velázquez's Las Meninas or El Greco's The Resurrection or Titian's Naked Maja one is not likely to miss Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. Even the lesser known artists shine forth in incredible splendour. At the Prado we find Melendez's Still-life with Salmon and Lemon (1716), Murillo's loving Holy Family (1650), Zurbarán's striking The Apostle Peter Appearing to St. Peter Nolasco (1629) and Ribera's tragic The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1630). Amongst these are stirred in a generous number of works by Campin, Tiepolo, Veronese, Bosch, Dürer, Caravaggio, and Lorrain. The Prado has depth, even if most of it is literally deep in the museum's basement storage vaults. It's a painter's museum; it's a must-see especially if you like Spanish painters. And it's a museum where you won't get lost in jewellery or domestics while looking for your favourite Velázquez.