The Best Art Museums in Spain

During the height of the Spanish Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries the epic  kings of Spain channeled some of the riches that were coming from the Americas into art. They would order from and buy paintings and sculptures from the best artists in Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Spain today is one of the European countries that has the largest collections of art. Much of this art is found in its museums. Spain has also been the country that produced modern great artists such as Picasso and Dali.

This list is arbitrary (most lists are arbitrary) and contains the museums actually visited by the writer. The list has museums that have the largest collections and museums that are the most famous. There are many wonderful small museums that are not included here. It is meant as a guide for foreign visitors who love art. Following are some of the best art museums in Spain.

1. Museo Nacional del Prado (Popularly called El Prado) (Madrid)

In 1816 King Fernando VII created the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, which later became the Prado Museum. It was to contain the art collection of the kings. The name of the building that houses the collection is called the Villanueva Building. Recently a big annex has been constructed by the famous Spanish architect Rafael Moneo (winner of the Pritzker Prize of Architecture). The new annex will allow more art to be exhibited. The Prado is now the largest art museum in Spain.

The Prado has a very large collection of Old Masters. These include the artists Velazquez, Goya, Murillo, Durer, El Greco, Bosch, Rubens, Fra Angelico, David, Zurbaran, Raphael, Titian, Ribera, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt. The kings also collected sculpture, so the Prado has one of the largest sculpture collections of Europe, including the sculpture collection of Queen Cristina of Sweden (her inheritor sold it to the Spanish crown).

The Prado is known to have more than 8,600 paintings. The collection of art covers the period between the 12th century through the 19th century.

The most important painting in the collection is “Las Meninas”, by Velazquez. The painting has psychological facets that have fascinated viewers for a very long time. Then there are two paintings by Goya, “The Naked Maja” and “The Clothed Maja”. There is still controversy about who was the woman painted by Goya. A third Goya is “The Third of May”.

Another important painting is “The Three Graces”, by Rubens. Then there is “The Garden of Delights” by Bosch. Other famous paintings are “The Martyrdom of St. Philip” by Jose Ribera, three “Immaculate Conceptions” by Bartolome Murillo. El Greco painted “The Resurrection” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds”.

The museum is so large that it is impossible to see everything in one day. One has to choose what art interests him before deciding what to see.

2. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Madrid)

In the 1993 the Spanish government bought the private collection of the Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen, which contained more than 1500 paintings. This was the second biggest private collection in the world, second to the collection of the Queen of England. Many countries wanted to buy it, but the Baron was influenced by his Spanish wife Carmen Cervera.

The Spanish government agreed to remodel the neoclassic Villahermosa Palace to house the collection. The Spanish architect Rafael Moneo was in charge of the remodeling. Today the building is stunning, with pink marble floors and many other amenities. Several years later, Carmen Cervera agreed to lend her personal collection of art to the museum, so a new annex was designed to house her collection, and the same Spanish architect designed the annex.

It is known that the Thyssen Museum fill holes in the collection of the Prado. It has the best collection of German Expressionists. There are paintings from many Impressionists and Post Impressionists, such as Gauguin. There is also Pop Art and avant garde art from early in the 20th century. The Cervera collection also has the best collections of Catalan art and Andalusian art in Spain. The museum has a beautiful cafeteria set amid beautiful gardens.

3. The National Museum “Centro de Arte Reina Sofia” (Also known as MNCARS), (Madrid)

In 1992 the King and Queen of Spain inaugurated the Reina Sofia Museum. This museum contains contemporary art from the 20th century. The building was originally a hospital designed by the architect Francisco Sabatini. The famous French architect Jean Nouvel recently completed an expansion. The museum is most famous for displaying Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”.

Other artist displayed are Delaunay, Gris, Miro, Calder, Arp, Dali, Man Ray, Ives Klein, Francis Bacon, Tapies, and Dubuffet. Besides paintings, the museum has a collection of 100,000 books. The aim of the museum is to give the public access to modern and contemporary art. Much of the art displayed came from the Prado.

4. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Madrid)

This museum is housed in a 17th century baroque palace owned by Juan de Goyeneche. It has paintings from the last 500 years. Among the Old Masters found here are Ribera, Velazquez, El Greco, Rubens, Zurbaran, and Murillo. Newer artist include Zuloaga and Sorolla. There are more than 1500 paintings and 570 sculptures.

Goya was a member of the academy since 1780 and the academy has 13 paintings by him. These include two self portraits, portraits of Moratin, Juan de Villanueva, and the actress La Tirana.

Other famous paintings include Zurbaran’s “Agnus Dei” and “Los Frailes Mercedarios”, a “Maria Magdalena” from Ribera, and Rubens’ “Susana y los Viejos”. Among the many sculptures are the “Cabeza de Mujer” by Picasso, “Academia” by Pablo Gargallo, and “La Dolorosa” by Pedro de Mena.

Many art lovers seem to be unaware of the existence of this very good art museum and there is little traffic from visitors. Only the dedicated art lovers have seen the museum.

5. Museo de Bellas Artes (Seville)

The Museo de Bellas Artes was founded in 1839 in the old Convento de la Merced Calzada, which was originally built in 1602. The building is an example of Andalusian mannerist architecture of the 17th century. At that time the government confiscated all the art in the convents and monasteries of Spain, and the art from Seville was placed in this museum. This museum is one of the most important in Spain.

The art in this museum dates from the medieval times to the modern times, with an emphasis on the Seville school. This includes artists such as Francisco de Zurbaran, Juan de Valdes Leal, and Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

The former church of the convent is a very large structure with the most beautiful architecture. The ceiling and the cupola are amazingly beautiful.

The Sevilla School painted mostly huge altarpieces, that could be seen from far away. There are about 15 large paintings by Murillo, the most beautiful he painted in his lifetime. Other painters found here are Francisco Pacheco, Velazquez, and Cano. You can also find El Grecos and Goyas in the museum.

6. The Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao)

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was designed by the famous American architect Frank Gehry. It sits by the Nervion River. The building itself is like a giant sculpture made of titanium, limestone and glass curtain walls. It consists of many interconnecting shapes and is unique in the world.

Outside the museum there is a giant topiary of a puppy, designed by the American artist Jeff Koons, and this is about 30 feet tall. The topiary is made of flowers of different colors. This puppy is very unique, something beautiful and something to remember.

Inside the museum there is a giant atrium about 3 stories high. The ceiling for the first floor is about 50 feet high. This allows the museum to display huge works of art. There are 3 stories in all, and they are connected with curving walkways suspended from the roof.

One area of the first floor is dedicated to huge steel sculptures of Richard Serra. They are formed like huge cylinders, like the insides of sea shells and one walks inside the sculptures.

The rest of the museum has very modern art, dating from about 1945. It includes abstract expressionism art and pop art. They have a huge Andy Warhol mural of Marilyn Monroe’s face reproduced many times. It covers about 50 feet of the wall. There are several large Rauschenburg paintings. All of the art in the museum is very modern. The building itself competes with the artwork displayed in it.

7. Museo de Bellas Artes (Bilbao)

The present museum of fine arts comes from a merger of the first Museo de Bellas Artes, started in 1914, and the Museo de Arte Moderno, started in 1924. They have about 6000 works of art in their collection.

The museum is in a beautiful old building, which houses the collection from the middle ages to the 19th century. There is a modern annex, which contains the modern collection. The museum is one of the most important in Spain and it has the biggest collection of famous Basque artists. The paintings and the sculptures are grouped by time, so it is easy to understand them. Of particular importance are the large marble sculptures in the form of nudes from the beginning of the 20th century.

Famous masters include Anton van Dyck, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, El Greco, Goya, Zurbaran, Ignacio Zuloaga, Joaquin Sorolla, Jose de Ribera, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Robert Delaunay.

8. Museo de Bellas Artes (Valencia)

The Museo de Bellas Artes was started as the Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture of Santa Barbara in 1753. Later it became the Real Academia de Nobles Artes de San Carlos. In 1837 the government confiscated all the artwork in convents and monasteries, and these were grouped together to form the present museum’s collection. The building used was the Convento del Carmen. Between 1990 and 1997 a big and modern annex was added to the museum.

The collection contains the Valencia School of painters. There are also paintings by Luca Giordano, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Juan Valdes Leal, José de Ribera, Alonso Cano, Thomas Yepes, Pedro Orrente, Agustin Esteve, and Joaquin Sorolla.

Besides the paintings there is a collection of drawings, about 11,000 of them, done by famous painters from the 16th to the 20th century. There are also about 300 sculptures and artifacts from the times of the Romans to the Visigoths.

9. MNAC (Catalan National Art Museum) (Barcelona)

The Catalan National Art Museum is housed in the magnificent palace overlooking the fountains of Montjuic. It has the best collection of Catalan art, as well as works of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance arts from the 11th to 18th century. Its building is called the Palau Nacional, built for the 1929 World’s Fair. The museum was created in 1990 when several museums were merged.

The Romanesque art dates from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The Gothic art is from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The Renaissance and Baroque art are from the 16th to the 18th centuries. There is modern art from the 19th century to the 20th century.

On loan to the museum is part of the Carmen Cervera collection of Catalan art, which dates from the mid 19th century to the second half of the 20th century. There are also collections of drawings, prints, photography, and coins. The museum is the biggest museum in Barcelona.

10. Picasso Museum (Barcelona)

The Picasso Museum in Barcelona has 3,500 of the early work of Picasso. Jaume Sabartes was the secretary of Picasso and he worked to build the museum, which opened in 1963. It is installed in the Palau Aguilar. Later neighboring buildings such as the palace of the Baron of Castellet, the Palau Meca, Casa Mauri, and the Palau Finestres were added to the original museum building.

In 1970 Picasso donated 920 more works of art to the museum. The early work of Picasso includes paintings of his Blue Period (1901-1904). There are also works from the Rose Period (1905).

Among the famous paintings in the museum are Picasso’s interpretation of three masterpieces by other artists. These are “Algerian Women at Home”, by Delacroix, “Las Meninas” by Velázquez and “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass) by Manet.

11. Picasso Museum (Malaga)

The old Palacio de Buenavista in the heart of Malaga was renovated to build the museum. It has Renaissance and Mudejar elements. Picasso was born in Malaga and had a desire that his work be exhibited in his native city. Christine Ruiz-Picasso is the widow of Picasso’s eldest son, Pablo. She and her son Bernard have given and lent the city of Malaga part of their collection of Picassos.

The donation made by Christine Ruiz-Picasso, consisted of 14 paintings, 9 sculptures, 44 drawings, a sketchbook from the Royan series containing a further 36 drawings, 58 engravings and 7 ceramic pieces. In all, 133 works, to which Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Paul’s son and the artist’s grandchild, added another 22: 5 paintings, 2 drawings, 10 engravings and 5 ceramics.

Among the best paintings are “Olga Seated”, “Woman in an Armchair”, “Olga Kokhlova with Mantilla”, “Portrait of Pablo in a White Cap”, and “Portrait of a Woman with a Green-Collar Dress (Marie-Thérèse Walter)”.

 12. Museo Carmen Thyssen Malaga

 The Palacio de Villalon dates from the 16th century and was occupied by the Fernandez de Villalon Family. A source says that Fernandez de Villalon was a conquistador. This palace was renovated to house the new museum and the museum was inaugurated on March 24, 2011. The museum occupies a space of 7147 square meters, of which 5185 square meters will be used for displays, and the rest will be used for administrative purposes. The building has five stories. There is a beautiful Renaissance patio near the entrance that has galleries in two stories. The color used in the museum is a very light beige, used on the floor and the walls, and this shows off the paintings marvelously. The museum is very close to the Plaza de la Constitucion, in the historic center of Malaga.

The new museum has a permanent collection of 230 paintings belonging to the Baronesa Carmen Thyssen, also known in Spain as Carmen Cervera. Most of these paintings show art created in the 19th  century, and could be called Romantic art.  Of the 230 paintings, there are 133 paintings that belong to the Andalusia Collection, because they have themes of Andalusia, such as Andalusian patios, the Andalusian countryside, flamenco dancers, bull fights, toreros, and beautiful Andalusian women in traditional dress, and these were created mainly by Andalusian artists. Many of these paintings have never been shown in museums before and this is the biggest collection in the world with this theme. The identity of this museum will be closely tied to this theme.

There are five paintings by Joaquin Sorolla. One of the most beautiful paintings is his Patio de la Casa Sorolla, which shows the patio in his house in Madrid.

The aim of the Baronesa Carmen Thyssen is to popularize 19th century Spanish paintings, which are not very well known in Spain or the world. Her collection has popular paintings, and no official paintings of history. These paintings were eclipsed in the past by paintings from the previous era, such as those of Goya, and paintings from the succeeding era, such as those of Picasso. It is expected that this museum will get temporary exhibitions after they are shown in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.

  13. Can Framis Museum (Barcelona)

 Can Framis is the latest Fundació Vila Casas museum. Opened in April 2009 in Barcelona, it has around 300 works on show dating from the 1960’s onwards by a wide range of artists born or living in Catalonia such as Tapies, Agustí Puig, Guinovart, Plensa, Cabellut, Clavé. Temporary exhibitions are held at the Can Framis Espai A0.

Can Framis, a factory built at the end of the 18th century, was originally owned by the Framis family. Over the years it fell into disuse, becoming a monument to the industry of the area. Today, as a Museum of Contemporary Painting, it is an ideal place for the contemplation of art located in Poble Nou, now converted into the technological district of Barcelona and renamed 22@. The conversion of the building was undertaken by the BAAS architectural practice.