Madrid’s “Big Three” Art Scene

With my free time in Madrid I love to spend hours strolling through the famous museums and even some of the not-so-famous art galleries. The three most well-known museums in Madrid are the Prado, Reina Sofia and the Museo Thyssen. This collection is sometimes called “The Golden Triangle” or “The Big Three”. All three of these museums have very different collections of art, different personalities, and attract different visitors.

The most famous of the three museums is El Museo del Prado. It’s almost too easy to spend hours wandering through the hundreds of paintings at the Prado. It is the home of some of the most famous paintings in Spain’s art history, from the top three most renowned Spanish artists Goya (1746-1824), Velazquez (1599-1660) and El Greco (1541-1614). Half of the collection is a lot of handsome priests fighting off satanic dragons and chubby flying naked Renaissance babies, which for me gets old fast; however, the other half of the collection consists of influential pieces like Las Meninas and Goya’s “Black Paintings” like Saturn or the Drowning Dog.


I learned about Las Meninas for the first time way back freshman year in one of my drawing classes at Bard. For many artists, Las Meninas is the painting that introduced perspective in art. I also studied Las Meninas in relation to Don Quijote in my Spanish Lit. class, and how they both share a kind of self-referentiality that was extremely rare back in the 17th Century. I mean like that type of artistic inception of “a painting of a painting” and “a book of a book” kind of thing. Pictures are forbidden, but here is a photo from Google just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. This painting was especially unique because it is both a self-portrait of Velazquez and a portrait of the royal family.

Image result for las meninas

What the Prado does really well is that it showcases interesting exhibitions, separate from the main collection, that feature different, less well-known artists. When I went back in the beginning of the month, there were a few that I found especially interesting. One exhibition called Meta Pintura “A Journey into the Idea of Art”, another about Jose de Ribera’s expressive sketches and yet another on the still life painting of Clara Peeters.

There was also a gallery featuring the works of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), who’s paintings I also studied at Bard. The most famous, and amazing painting is called the Garden of Earthly Delights, three wooden panels displaying heaven, reality and hell. Another thing that really caught my attention was this gorgeous wooden ceiling that was taken and restored from an old cathedral in northern Spain.IMG_4247.JPG

The Prado is open from 10AM-8PM every day, on Sunday it closes at 7. For adults it is 12€, luckily for students (still me – technically!) it’s free! It is also free every day Mon-Sat from 6-8, but careful with the line, people start lining up early to get in.

The second most famous museum within the “Big Three” is called El Museo del Reina Sofia, which puts a more modern spin on Spanish art. Featuring artists like Picasso, Miró and Dalí, this collection is much more contemporary than the Prado. In my personal opinion, everything about the Reina Sofia is more trendy than the Prado, from the art itself to the structure and function of the building. What was originally an 18th century hospital has been converted into a clean, abstract red and gray steel rectangle museum. Construction finished in 1990 and even since then the Reina Sofia has been attracting just as many, if not even more visitors than the Prado.


One thing that can be misleading about the building is that there are many different entrances. The main entrance is on the Sabatini north-side of complex. On the other side of the building is an entrance to the upper level temporary gallery. When I was there they had an exhibition about zines. And underneath of the museum is a really hip café/restaurant/bar called NuBel that is worth the visit.

You may ask… what is a zine? Its like a mini magazine or collage of words, images, and memories. Anyone can personalize and publish their own zine.

The museum has four levels structured around a square central plaza with a garden. There are large glass windows which lets in natural light and the walls are stark white. So it is provides a perfect atmosphere to be able to focus and enjoy art. The majority of the collection is a mix of paintings, sculptures and old books and artifacts on display. There is a clear modern, surrealist, and abstract theme throughout the second and third floors of the Sabatini building.


While the collection includes painters from other European countries like Magritte and Tanguy from France and Max Ernst from Germany, there is a strong emphasis in the Reina Sofia on Spanish history and how the art has taken a part in this history. Each gallery has an informational card that welcomes and walks the visitor through some of the most important historical moments of the Spanish 20th Century.

For example, one of my favorite sections was the Spanish art from the 1920s when the Generation of ’27 was taking off as a group of avant-garde poets and artists all from Spain who greatly influenced the art world. This stylistic period includes Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Juan Gris, Salvador Dalí, and a Dalí copycat named Oscar Dominguez. These artists played a lot with color and contrast, geometric form and negative space and the many uses of the line. Here are two of my favorites that I saw:

Of course the most famous painting in the Reina Sofia is La Guernica by Picasso. While yes, I do hate viewing art with crowds and often try to give a little extra-appreciation to the overlooked paintings in a room, I cannot deny the power and sheer beauty of this painting. There is a reason why it is so famous!


12 ft high and 25 ft long, this black and white masterpiece really commands the room. As I had studied this painting before in college, I felt as though I was really able to appreciate the painting not only aesthetically, but also because of the political message that is so deeply ingrained in the piece. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a German war plane, assisting the Nationalists and Franco, bombed a small town in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Picasso’s painting is seen as a cry against brutal war violence and a testimony for the innocent lives that were taken from this event. The chaos of the screaming civilians and the juxtaposition of humans and gruesome-looking animals is silenced by the meaningful, yet muted monochromatic, grayish tones. I believe this could be representative of the many following years of pain and repression felt by the Leftist Republican party of Spain under the Franco Regime.

On the third floor of the building is a temporary exhibition called Ficciones y territorios: Arte para pensar la nueva razón del mundo (Territories & Fictions: Thinking a New Way of the World). It is a collection of social realist photographs focused on showcasing the low-come and gentrified suburbs outside of Madrid and Barcelona. There were some political essays to read that accompanied the photos. This genuine exhibition was a breath of air from the idyllic impressionistic style that dominates the Prado and Thyssen.


The Reina Sofia is open from basically the same times 10-8 PM all week. However, it is closed on Tuesdays and on Sunday is closes at 7 PM. Every night (M-F) from 7-9 the museum is free, but it usually costs 8€.

Now, the third down on the list of museums in Madrid is called El Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Thyssen was a private collection started by a Swiss family back in the 80s, who now have their art on display for the public. The Thyssen has a bit of everything artistically speaking: soft, impressionistic Western landscapes, large modern abstracts,  and mixed media explorations. It is like a quick representative journey through art history from the 13th to the 20th century. Famous artists include Rembrant, Dalí, Carvaggio, and a few more modern additions like Roy Lichtenstein and Kandinsky.


Some paintings that I especially enjoyed are Piet Mondrian’s “Composition XIII”, Frantisek Kupka’s “Study for the Language of the Verticals”, Lyonel Feininger’s “Ships”, Kandinsky’s “Murnau, casas en el Obermarkt”, Yves Tanguy’s “Imaginary Numbers” and Richard Estes’s “People’s Flowers”.

The Thyssen is the less known museum of the “Golden Triangle”. The other day I mentioned the name of the museum to one of my private lesson students who is from Madrid, and she had never even heard of it! While it may not be as popular or as large a collection as the Prado or Reina Sofia, the Thyssen is definitely worth the visit.


The main collection of The Thyssen is open every day from 10AM-7PM. On Mondays however it is only open from 12 to 6 PM, but it is completely free. You can just walk right in and start exploring! General admission is 12€, and many can find a reduced fee for 8€.

Whether you’re having a luxurious four hour tour in the Prado or just stopping by the Thyssen for a brief stroll on a Monday afternoon, these three museums provide a world of entertainment and knowledge for any type of tourist in Madrid. Come check it out!


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