Spanish art
Surprising, original and unique in its intensity

Background story

Medieval Spain was a land of great battles, between Christians and Islamic Moors, between Catholics and Protestants. But it was also a land where east and west met. The Caliphate of Córdoba was a melting pot of Jews, Christians and Moors and that confluence of peoples yielded up a special blend of architecture, culture and science. Spanish art was heavily influenced by this remarkable civilisation and its origins hold the key to a better understanding of West European culture.

After 1250 the Christians gained a stronger foothold in Spain. Over a period of centuries they took more and more land from the Moors. Influenced by exquisite Moorish designs, the Christian art of that era was richly decorated. A German nun christened Córdoba ‘the bright jewel of the world’.

Almost immediately after the fall of the last Moorish stronghold and Columbus’ discovery of America, both in 1492, Christian Spain emerged as a world power. Charles I (1500–1558) united the entire Iberian peninsula under one crown. Later he would become ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and inherit the Netherlands and Southern Italy. We know him as Charles V. During the emperor’s rule, adventurers brought territories in Africa, Asia and the Americas under the Spanish crown. Spain called itself ‘the Empire on which the sun never sets’, transformed itself into an outward-looking country and eagerly adopted the innovations of the Renaissance. Italian influences had a strong impact on the many young Spanish painters who went to Venice and Rome to study.

Charles was succeeded by his son Philip II (1527–1598) in 1556. Philip inherited an empire that was exhausted from multiple religious wars and barely intact. Philip was a devout Catholic and under his rule Spain became increasingly isolated. He lost the Netherlands and established the Spanish Inquisition, a legal system aimed at enforcing Catholic dominance in the country, whatever the cost. Spanish artists were required to create religious propaganda that everyone could understand.

In 1561 Philip moved the country’s capital from Toledo to the small, but centrally situated city of Madrid. Two years later, construction began on the palace and grand monastery complex El Escorial not far from Madrid. The king wanted the best Spanish and foreign artists to decorate the enormous complex in a way that glorified absolutism and the Church. He established rules in order to maintain complete control over the arts. He required that religious images be clearly recognisable and free of superfluous details. Images of the saints were to be nothing other than an obvious call to prayer.

José de Ribera (1591–1652), Saint Jerome and the Angel, 1626
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

16th and 17th centuries: the Golden Age

The Spanish and Italian masters who decorated El Escorial adopted many mannerist elements in their style: complex poses, exaggerated musculature, strong rotations and bright, cool colours to express emotions and drama. This set the tone for painting in the Spanish court.

One of the first court painters was Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531/32–1588), who took inspiration from two of the greatest portraitists in Europe, Titian of Venice and Antonis Moor of the Netherlands.
He set the standard for Spanish state portraiture, establishing a fixed pattern of postures, gestures and attributes. As a result, representing the high social position of the subject was more important than creating an exact likeness. Coello’s Portrait of the Infanta Catalina Micaela of Austria, Philip II’s daughter, dated 1582–85 is a perfect example.

The construction of El Escorial drew artists from Italy to Spain. One such artist was Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541–1614), nicknamed El Greco, the Greek. He had trained as an icon painter and worked in the Byzantine tradition. He had studied under Titian and was acquainted with the stunning works of Tintoretto and Veronese. In Spain, El Greco received a few commissions from Philip II, but was never a court painter. He refused to abide by the rules.

El Greco moved to Toledo, which was still Spain’s religious capital. For the city’s cathedral he painted The Disrobing of Christ(1579, depicting Christ just before his crucifixion; not in the exhibition). In this painting, he pulled out all the stops and revealed his exceedingly original talent, characterised by a virtuoso realism that actually transcended reality. He broke all the rules in his drive to express himself. First rejected by the king, his work was now spurned by the cathedral. But the painter continued to follow his own vision.

It wasn’t that El Greco’s work is irreligious. In fact, it contains an intense form of spirituality: mysticism. Extreme devotion is almost tangible in his experiments. Yearning figures, trembling with energy, practically bursting out of the frame, depicted in brilliant colours. But there are always surprisingly tender moments, too.

Monks appreciated El Greco’s work. He received more and more commissions and established his fame once and for all in 1586 with the immense work The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (not in the exhibition; it never leaves the Iglesia de San Tomé in Toledo). A while later he created the profound and expertly painted The Apostles Peter and Paul.

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541–1614), The Apostles Peter and Paul, 1587–92
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Valencia – Ribalta: revolutionary realist

The Catalan Francisco Ribalta (1565–1628) began his career in Madrid and in El Escorial. The Hermitage owns Ribalta’s first known painting, Crucifixion from 1582. His early style was strongly influenced by the distinctive mannerism of the art in El Escorial, see The Martyrdom of St Catherine (1599). The Apparition of the Christ to St Vincent Ferrer (c. 1610), attributed to his studio, was painted in the mannerist style but with strong elements of realism. Ribalta painted monumental canvases depicting heroic saints, using a strict colour programme and intense contrasts of light and dark. His work heralded a new direction in Spanish painting: dramatic realism. A typical example is St Vincent, St Vincent Ferrer and St Raymund of Peñafort (1620s), attribued to Ribalta’s school.

Francisco Ribalta (1565–1628), Crucifixion, 1582
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Seville – Zurbarán and Murillo: mystical light

In the seventeenth century, Seville was Spain’s richest and most industrious city. Here one could sense a vibrant gold fever. Ships departed from its inland port to America where they were loaded up with gold and silver. In a climate in which art was allowed to flourish, churches and monasteries were richly decorated and new trends were quickly adopted. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) began receiving commissions in Seville in 1626. He was a major religious painter and had such a masterful command of the chiaroscuro technique that he was considered the Spanish Caravaggio. Members of religious orders were by far his most beloved subjects. He is known for his austere depictions of monks having visions. His style was as extreme as it was pious. He embraced a spiritual minimalism, rejecting all earthly things: either you are in God’s light or you are cast into darkness.

In the early 1630s, Zurbarán’s workshop, probably with his assistance, produced St Francis Contemplating a Skull. Shortly after Zurbarán painted San Fernando.This portrait of a Spanish catholic hero was part of the retable in the church of the La Merced Descalzas monastery in Seville.

The talented Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) was influenced by Zurbarán and, later, Velázquez (see below). He succeeded Zurbarán as the leading painter in Seville. While earlier artists, such as Ribalta, had portrayed the saints as heroic figures, Murillo brought them closer to ordinary people. In his work, the sacred and the profane converge organically, as in his towering piece Vision of St Anthony (1660s–70s). He painted his earliest work on this theme for the Cathedral of Seville. The painting is spacious and dynamic and features a refined colour scheme. In Immaculate Conception (c. 1680), a late masterpiece by Murillo, we see the arrival of rococo, a new, more frivolous style. Murillo made extensive use of this theme.

Seville set the tone in Andalusia, but there were other centres of art. In Granada, Pedro de Moya (1610–1674) occupied a special niche. Some sources say that he had travelled in Flanders and England and was acquainted with the work of Anthony van Dyck. Portrait of a Man (1650s) supports this: its colours intense and the painting has a romantic, Flemish look about it.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), Immaculate Conception, c 1680
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Napels – Ribera and Giordano: extatic suffering

During the Golden Age, Spain held large terrorities in Italy and many Spanish masters spent time there. José de Ribera (1591–1652) settled in Napels – which fell directly under the Spanish crown – and perfected a style characterised by chiaroscuro and tight compositions. He had a fondness for painting common people. Ribera, familiar with the dramatic realism of Ribalta of Valencia, the region where he himself was born, became a master of the dramatic mise-en-scène. His paintings captured moments, often in motion, such as in St Jerome and the Angel (1626).

Ribera excelled at depicting pain. He specialised in martyrs and painted them with astounding realism. His religious paintings are as penetrating as portraits. They highlight the physical agony that saints endured, living bodies tortured, all sweat, blood and sinew. Violence in art was not new but in Spanish painting everything was fiercer and more extreme. In seventeenth-century Spain, pain symbolised piety. It was God’s sign that the believer was one of the chosen.

The young Luca Giordano (1634–1705) worked in Ribera’s studio. At the start of his career, he imitated his master’s style but later absorbed different styles during stays in Florence, Rome and Venice, no doubt aided by his swift stroke, which earned him the nickname Luca fa presto (‘Luca does it fast’). All of those influences culminated in a complex and highly ornamental baroque style. One of the dominant movements between 1600 and 1750, baroque featured spiraling movements, sharp contrasts between light and dark and other theatrical effects aimed at enthralling the viewer. This style is characterised by its dynamic structure, three-dimensional effects, bright colours and loose brushwork. See, for example, Giordano’s The Forge of Vulcanus (1660). In 1692 Spain’s Charles II invited Giordano to court, where he stayed for ten years. He was one of the successors of the greatest master of the Golden Age of Spanish painting.

Diego Velázquez de Silva (1599–1660), Head of a Man in Profile, c 1616 (front)
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Velázquez: greatest innovator

That master was Diego Velázquez da Silva (1599–1660). He was distinctive in his extraordinary freedom and versatility. Early in his career he took his inspiration from the streets. Rather than painting religious subjects, he courageously chose to paint real life, ordinary people in everday situations. He captured people in public houses and kitchens with great wisdom and compassion. He brought the everyday to life: wrinkles on faces, perfect depictions of skin, objects and fabrics. By treating his subjects with respect, he gave them dignity without romanticising them. No religious mysteries, no esoteric symbolism: Velázquez painted what he saw. These works were referred to as bodegones, from the word bodega, or wine cellar. Head of a Man in Profile (c. 1616), a fragment of an almost entirely lost canvas, is such an early work.

In 1623 Velázquez relocated from Seville to Madrid. After his appointment as court painter, he turned his hand to portraits of royalty and members of the high aristocracy, such as Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count Duke of Olivares, the most powerful minister under Philip IV from 1622 to 1643. Velázquez’ Portrait of de Olivares (c. 1638) is one of the most expressive examples.

This painter of everyday scenes would become a great court painter, with the king, Philip IV, as his patron. In his portraits, Velázquez gave the king more. He does not have the appearance of a powerful but static monarch; he is much more a real, living person. One of his greatest works, Las Meninas (the maids of honour, 1656–57; not in the exhibition), puts an end to all the illusion, the pomp and circumstance of seventeenth-century Spain. What he dared to do in his bodegones, he also dared to do at court: no mystery, what you see is reality. Rather than painting a portrait of the king, he shows us what the king sees while his portrait is being painted. Bright bundles of light in a dark room. Every part of the scene is about transcience; fabrics, hair, the sheen on his subjects’ clothing, everything is on the verge of disappearing. Everything is fleeting, even power.

Many great Spanish painters sought inspiration from God and were able to capture an invisible spiritual world. Velázquez had the courage to turn his back on that and communicate that this life is the only certainty.

Madrid: theatrical romanticism

Portraits and religious works were the dominant forms in the Golden Age, but beautiful pieces were executed in many other genres, too. Juan de la Corte (c. 1580–1662), an artist of Flemish origin, painted a series on historical subjects. He captured his king, Charles I / V, in the Hermitage painting, Battle (probably 1643). Antonio de Pereda (1611–1678) excelled in still life painting, a genre which came to be held in high esteem in Spain. His Still Life with Chest (1652) shows the ‘celebration’ of earthly pleasures. Ignacio Iriarte (1621–1670), a friend and colleague of Murillo’s, made his name in Seville. Iriarte’s talent was limited to landscapes, but in that genre he was brilliant. The Hermitage owns one of his best works, Crossing at the Ford (c. 1665).

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Still Life with Glass Vessels, 1906
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

18th century – Goya

From 1700 onwards the French house of Bourbon supplied Spain’s kings, and the country’s international prestige quickly faded. Spanish painting lost its defining national characteristics as artists came under the strong influence of Italian, French and German masters. Not until the end of the century did Spain produce another great and original talent – one who would prove truly without equal. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) was inspired by the works of Velázquez, but developed his own wholly independent style. ‘I have had three teachers,’ he wrote, ‘nature, Velázquez and Rembrandt.’ In his early career he painted everyday scenes for the Spanish court, including not only portraits of the royal family but also portraying actors and moments in the lives of comedia characters.

In 1792 Goya had a mysterious illness that left him barely alive and all but deaf. Bidding farewell to the decadence of court life, he retreated into his imagination, evolving a style that was increasingly dark and bleak. In a portrait of the actress Antonia Zárate, painted in 1810–11, we see her splendidly arrayed, perhaps for one of her roles. Yet the melancholy expression in her huge, dark eyes hints at a looming unhappiness. In fact, she was suffering tuberculosis and died soon after the portrait was completed.

Goya’s graphic works

The exhibition features a few Goya rooms devoted to five series of the artist’s graphic work, starting with a small group of early etchings based on works by Velázquez. Twenty years later (1797–98), Goya produced the first of his four great print cycles: Los Caprichos (The Caprices), containing allusions to topical events and scandals that sent shock waves through Spanish society. Opening with an ironic self-portrait (in the exhibition), the series would later become his most renowned graphic work.

In 1808 Spain was invaded by Napoleon’s forces, unleashing a guerrilla war permeated with cruelty, murder and rape. Goya saw it all, and responded with a set of 82 etchings entitled Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). Portraying the suffering of ordinary citizens under the terrorisation of the army, the disruption of daily life and widespread famine, the series was considered too grim for publication in his own day.

Goya’s graphic work is typically dark, grotesque and at times absurd, yet the many bizarre images almost all contain something tragic too. The intensity, emphasised by the monochrome medium, makes this work something entirely new. Goya was a pioneer of modern art.

19th and early 20th century

The painters of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century did not limit themselves to one genre. On commission they painted landscapes, portraits, history paintings, bullfights and religious works. Frequently they took the Masters of the Golden Age and Goya as their examples.

Among the best-known painters of this era were José Villegas de Cordero (1844–1921) and Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945). Inspired by Velázquez and Goya, they produced monumental compositions. Torero’s Farewell (c. 1888) by Cordero is emotionally laden but not sentimental. Zuloaga’s palette was often more dramatic, at times even gloomy. A good example is his religious painting The Hermit (1899). The 1904 canvas Preparation for the Bullfight, showing a lady in typically Spanish costume, is clad in sunnier yellow.

>strong>Mario Fortuny y Carbó (1838–1874) was a key figure in Spanish painting in this period. His watercolours and graphic works, too, show influences of earlier masters; for instance, Opium Smoker and Musician (both from 1869; shown alternately in the exhibition). Fortuny made a name in the Parisian Salon with his Spanish and Oriental works, for example Arab (1860–65).

The special final section of the exhibition features little-known early work by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Though Picasso would eventually launch a completely new chapter in art history, his early works contain many unmistakably Spanish characteristics. His Iberian roots manifest themselves in Still Life with Glass Vessels (1906) and in a number of his ceramic objects. Glass Vessels, depicting Catalan style glasswork, is in the well-known Spanish tradition of still life painting. The gouaches Boy with a Dog (1905) and Nude Boy (1906) are related to an important theme in Picasso’s Rose Period: Saltimbanques, itinerant carnival performers. The two gouaches will be shown alternately in the exhibition.

In 1964, Picasso’s lover and muse Françoise Gilot said of the artist: ‘Pablo’s definition of the Spaniard’s perfect Sunday was “mass in the morning, bullfight in the afternoon, whorehouse at night”. He didn’t mind skipping the first and the last, but the bullfight was always one of his great pleasures in life, and we often went to the corrida in Nîmes or Arles.’

Portrait of the Actress Antonia Zárate, c 1810–11
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg


This exhibition showcases the broader context of painting during the Spanish Golden Age (second half of the sixteenth through the seventeenth century) and its echoes in later centuries. The ‘Spanish masters’ of this period do not necessarily fit the geographic boundaries of modern-day Spain and include artists born on the Iberian peninsula, but also elsewhere, in territories ruled by Spain. Luca Giordano is an example, having been born in Naples.

Today, the Hermitage’s collection of early Spanish masters (up through Goya) numbers more than 160 paintings, of which 40 are on view in this exhibition. The first of these works were acquired under Catherine the Great and the collection was subsequently expanded through regular purchases, inheritances, legacies and gifts. Last to be added was Goya’s Portrait of the Actress Antonia Zárate, donated by an American collector in 1972.

Dutch collections also hold a small number of works by Spanish masters. Those known include paintings at the Rijksmuseum (several by Murillo, one by El Greco and one by Goya) and at the Singer Museum (Velázquez) and a large number of engravings by Goya that are in storage at the Rijksmuseum. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam) owns works by Dalí, but they fall beyond the scope of this exhibition.

In 1985–86 the Rijksmuseum organized a show titled Velázquez and his Times, and in 2013 Boijmans Van Beuningen displayed engravings from Goya’s series Los Desastres de la Guerra in the exhibition Disasters of War.

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on 27 April (Kingsday)
Open on Christmas Day (25-12) &
1 January 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Roy Beusker Fotografie

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