With more than 7,000 paintings, the Prado is one of the most important repositories of art in the world, based on a royal collection fattened over the years by the wealth of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons. Don’t make the kids see everything; on your first visit, concentrate on the three great Spanish masters—Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco, who can be appreciated here as nowhere else.
One picture they must see: Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). The figure of a small Spanish infanta in her splendid satin gown is the focal point, her self-possessed gaze as quixotic as the Mona Lisa’s. Two figures in the painting look directly at the viewer: the princess and that dark-clothed figure behind her painting the royal family, a self-portrait of Velázquez. The faces of the queen and king are merely reflected in a mirror on a back wall. Then there’s that departing figure on the stairs in the back—Velázquez’s virtuoso technique is one thing, but this painting is so dramatically composed, we could barely drag ourselves away.
We love the work of his older contemporary El Greco (ca. 1541–1614), a Creteborn artist who lived much of his life in Toledo. His huge canvases look astonishingly modern, with their impressionistic lights and shadows. The Prado displays several of his rapturous saints, Madonnas, and Holy Families, even a ghostly John the Baptist.
It’s also fascinating to see the work of Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)—note the contrast between his portraits of Charles IV and his family (so unflattering, you wonder why they continued their patronage) and politically charged paintings, such as the Third of May (1808), and sketches depicting the decay of 18th-century Spain. One pair of canvases, The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, make a brilliant contrast—almost identical portraits, except that in one the woman is clothed and in the other she’s nude.
Teenagers also got into Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Seven Deadly Sins, and his triptych The Hay Wagon, along with the ghoulish The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Breughel the Elder. But we only had 1 day, and we needed to scoot over to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Santa Isabel 52, the Prado’s modern-art sequel, where Pablo Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece Guernica is the star, alongside works by Juan Gris, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dalí.