In the heart of Madrid is the Museo del Prado, the place for studying the masters and another of my favourite museums :) The collection is enormous and particularly strong on the history of Spanish painting including plenty of Velazquez, Goya, and Ribera. I also loved works by Van Dyck and Durer as well as temporary exhibitions "The Young Ribera"and "Chardin."
José Tapiró y Baró, "The Dancer Parache"
There was a gorgeous, small temporary exhibition "Fortuny and the Splendour of Spanish Watercolours", which I was very excited to see. The subtlety of Tapiró y Baró's painting was extraordinary - my favourite part is how the hessian wrap rests so lightly on the shoulder of the white shirt and how the hessian seems to emerge from/dissolve into the rough texture of the paper.
Francisco Pradilla, "Queen Joanna the Mad"
There were a number of epic (in scale and story) history paintings at the Prado and Pradilla's was a highlight. This scene shows the distraught Queen who was not able to let go of her beloved husband after he died (to the point of exhuming his coffin). The wind, flame and general atmosphere of the painting is amazing, perhaps most of all I appreciated the composition and how successful it is at making Queen Joanna feel isolated even though she is surrounded by people - her figure and the coffin at the centre is the area of highest tonal contrast in the painting directing our focus to her while giving a sense of her narrow and fragile state of mind.
Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (detail of hell)
I found Bosch inspiring for his wild imagination and exquisite attention to detail. It was also fascinating to see this painting as an object rather than just an image - the sides of the triptych act as shutters and are painted on both sides, the work is displayed so that you peek around the back to see the painting on the other side and imagine how it would look if the shutters were closed (below). A really interesting contrast to the bright coloured busy garden & hell scenes, the world during creation appears dark, mysterious and quiet, almost like the calm before the storm...
Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (triptych - shutters closed)
A really special exhibition for me was the Prado's "Goya and More" an exhibition of recent acquisitions of works on paper, primarily Spanish drawings. Due to their fragile nature works on paper are rarely on display so I felt very lucky to be able to time my trip for this exhibition. Drawing is my favourite artistic medium because, to me, it is the most direct and personal. I loved seeing the character of marks and use of line and tone employed by each different artist - from the clarity, confidence and dynamism of Ribera's drawing (below) to the soft, sensitive touch of Maella (above).
Jose de Ribera, "Young with a pinwheel and an Old Man Pulling a Cart with a Dead Body"
I noticed that there are some great online resources for the "Goya and More" works on paper exhibition including videos and a catalogue if you're interested.
El Greco, "The Burial of Count Orgaz", Iglesia Santo Tome, Toledo
Like El Greco's work above, many great artworks from Spanish history were commissioned by the church and can be found inside Iglesias (churches), cathedrals, and monasteries. My first visit to a Spanish monastery (Monasterio De Las Descalzas Reales, Madrid) was an interesting experience as it allowed me to grasp a context for the religious paintings and sculptures, which feature so prominently in the major museums. The collection of tapestries inside the monastery, designed by Rubens, was particularly extraordinary and opened my mind to an artistic medium that I have had little exposure to. Monasterio de La Encarnación (Madrid) also had a fascinating collection of painting, sculpture and relics interwoven with a number of royal and religious histories.