28 Nude Masterpieces From Spain's Prado Head to The Clark This Summer

  • WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts
  • /
  • January 20, 2016

  • Email
Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), After Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (Italian [Venetian], c. 1488–1576), Rape of Europa, 1628–29. Oil on canvas, 71 7/8 x 79 3/8 in.
© Archivo Fotográfico, Museo Nacional del Prado...

In summer 2016 the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., is the exclusive venue for Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado. The exhibition, co-organized by the Clark and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, consists of twenty-eight Old Master paintings of the nude, twenty-four of which have never traveled to the United States. The exhibition examines the collecting of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings of the nude at the Spanish court, explores the histories of these works and their display in the Spanish Royal Collections, and reconsiders the significant role of the nude in European art. The exhibition will be on view June 11–October 10, 2016.

The Prado’s collection of Old Master paintings, widely recognized as one of the most important in the world, is characterized by a significant concentration of mythological, allegorical, historical, and religious paintings depicting nudes. The works presented in Splendor, Myth, and Vision were selected from the Prado’s unparalleled holdings, not only for their relationship to the exhibition’s themes, but also for their individual histories and artistic merit. 

 “It is a privilege for the Clark to bring this important collection of paintings to the United States and a great thrill to present them in our new galleries,” said Francis Oakley, interim director of the Clark. “Our collaboration with the Museo Nacional del Prado began when the Clark’s suite of paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir was presented in the Prado’s galleries in 2010 and became one of the most successful exhibitions in the Prado’s history. We are confident that this exhibition of the Prado’s masterpieces will be welcomed with equal fervor here and look forward to providing our visitors with a rare and wonderful opportunity to enjoy these exceptional works and to consider the rich historical themes explored in Splendor, Myth, and Vision.”

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (Italian [Venetian], c. 1488–1576), Venus with an Organist and Cupid, c. 1550–1555. Oil on canvas, 59 1/8 x 85 7/8 in.
© Archivo Fotográfico, Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid

The exhibition explores the Spanish monarchy’s collection and display of sensual paintings during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in major works by Titian (Italian, c. 1488–1576), Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), Jacopo Tintoretto (Italian, 1519–1594), Diego Velàzquez (Spanish, 1599–1660); Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, c. 1591–1652), and Jan Breughel the Elder (Flemish, 1568–1625) , among others. The exhibition places particular emphasis on two of the greatest art patrons of their time: Philip II (r. 1556–1598) and Philip IV (r. 1621–1665). The exhibition includes important portraits of these patrons—Philip II painted by Titian and his workshop in 1549–50, and Philip IV painted by Diego Velàzquez, c. 1653–55.

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, 1591–1666), Susannah and the Elders, c. 1617. Oil on canvas, 69 1/4 x 81 7/8 in.
© Archivo Fotográfico, Museo Nacional del Prado...

Most of the works of art in the exhibition—many of which depict eroticized, mythological, female nudes—were made for or collected by a succession of Spanish kings as articulations of their secular and religious power, as reminders of virtue and vice, and as objects of private delight. A number of these paintings within the Spanish Royal Collections were secluded from public view in private, or reserved, rooms known as salas reservadas. When the Museo del Prado opened to the public in the nineteenth century, the tradition continued with many of the paintings of the nude being placed in a specially designated room. The museum’s sala reservada existed between 1827 and 1838.

The survival of paintings of the nude collected by the Spanish monarchy is a compelling story of the clash between public morals, private tastes, and the exercise of power. While Philip II and Philip IV celebrated depictions of the human form, Philip III (r. 1598–1621) was troubled by nudity and kept many works collected by his father out of sight, feeling that they were in conflict with his religiosity. Even more extreme, Charles III (r. 1759–1788) and Charles IV (r. 1788–1808) considered having the paintings destroyed to avoid the moral corruption of those who might view them. Subsequently, many of these works were placed in the Academy of San Fernando with the dual intention of limiting public access to the paintings and providing pedagogical tools to students. More than two centuries later, the nude continues to evoke powerful responses across the spectrum of emotion, from censorship to celebrated acceptance.

Philip II, Titian, and the Venetian Nude

Philip II was one of the most important patrons of the Venetian painter Titian, commissioning from him a number of portraits and mythological paintings that celebrated the nude. The most erotically charged of these paintings were kept away from public view in private chambers near the king’s quarters. Because of the high concentration of works by the artist, these and similar rooms later became known as the Bovedas de Titian (Titian Vaults).

Titian and Jacopo Tintoretto were two of the most important Venetian artists of the sixteenth century, both known for their sensual depictions of the female nude. Venus with an Organist and Cupid (Titian, c. 1550–1555), which was housed in the Titian Vaults, depicts a reclining Venus accompanied by a male musician. Titian made several versions of this composition, a subject that appealed to the sophisticated collectors of the time. The painting weaves together love, erotic desire, and the senses in an exploration of beauty and harmony. 

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (c. 1555) and Susannah and the Elders (c. 1555), both by Jacopo Tintoretto, were also displayed in the Titian Vaults. They are included in the exhibition as outstanding examples of the artist’s use of the nude figure in depicting biblical stories with an emphasis on the sensual and exotic. 

Domenico Tintoretto’s Lady Revealing her Breast (c. 1580–90), a work that was housed in the sala reservada, is a mysterious painting depicting a courtesan. It has been suggested that the woman shown is Veronica Franco, the most celebrated Venetian courtesan of the second half of the sixteenth century. However, the identity of the sitter has never been confirmed. Unlike other images of courtesans, who generally look directly at the viewer, this painting depicts a profile. The bold presentation of the young woman’s breasts creates a contradiction that serves to enhance the painting’s sensuality.

Philip IV and Rubens

Philip IV built a number of new royal residences, including an opulent hunting lodge known as the Torre de la Parada. A major patron of Rubens, Philip IV commissioned him to paint more than sixty mythologies based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the lodge. These massive canvases were installed in one large room, creating a stunning visual effect. Rubens’s advanced age at the time of the commission made it impossible for him to execute all of the works himself, leading him to rely on members of his studio and various assistants to create many of the works based on his oil sketches. Two of the fourteen paintings executed by Rubens himself for the lodge are included in the exhibition: Fortuna (1636) and Rape of Hippodamia or The Lapiths and the Centaurs (1636–38).  Another of the Torre de la Parada paintings included in the exhibition, the Marriage of Peleus and Thetis (1636–38), was executed by Jacob Jordaens (Flemish, 1593–1678), an associate of Rubens.

Fortuna is a stunning full-length nude depicting the goddess of fortune balancing on a sphere set within a stormy landscape. The goddess represents the varied chances of life; she can bring happiness, but also misfortune. Fortuna epitomizes Rubens’s beautiful rendering of the fleshy, robust female figure, a style that became his hallmark.

Measuring nearly six by ten feet, Rape of Hippodamia has a frieze-like composition; the horizontal direction strengthens the painting’s sense of violence. The painting tells the story of the wedding banquet of the king of the Lapiths at which the centaurs attempt to kidnap the bride. A bloody battle ensues, resulting in the defeat of the centaurs. This myth illustrates the battle between civilization and bestiality and could have served as a source of contemplation for a monarch seeking to rule justly.

Rubens was a great admirer of Titian, finding inspiration in the Venetian’s vigorous brushwork and rich use of color. In 1628, when Rubens was in Spain on a diplomatic mission, Philip IV provided the painter with private access to the Titian paintings in his collections at the Alcázar Palace, many of them collected by Phillip IIone of the greatest masterpieces presented in the exhibition: Rape of Europa (1628–29), painted at the height of Rubens’s artistic power and considered a bravura homage from one great artist to another. Purchased by Philip IV upon Rubens’s death in 1640, the painting depicts Europa being abducted by Zeus, who had taken the form of a white bull. It was this painting that firmly established Rubens’s reputation as the heir to Titian and, significantly, linked the collecting and patronage of Philip IV with that of his grandson Philip II, who had acquired Titian’s Rape of Europa directly from the artist in 1562.

The history of this painting’s subsequent display is particularly interesting as it illustrates the changing attitude of various monarchs toward depictions of the nude form and an inconsistent  approach to their display. For reasons unknown––and despite its nudity––the painting was not isolated from view during the eighteenth century, nor was it placed in the sala reservada in the Prado in the nineteenth century.

The Nude in the Landscape of the Spanish Netherlands

Splendor, Myth, and Vision presents a selection of cabinet pictures—small, finely executed paintings—that place the nude within the context of seventeeth-century Flemish landscape painting. Landscape with Psyche and Jupiter (1610) was originally painted by Paul Bril (Flemish, 1554–1626) as a landscape with the figure of St. Jerome. The painting later belonged to Rubens, who removed the figure of Jerome and added the figures of Psyche and Jupiter, thus changing the painting from a religious to a mythological scene.

Two versions of Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568–1625) are included in the exhibition. One (c. 1600–1625) was painted in collaboration with Hendrick van Balen (Flemish, c. 1574/75–1632); the other (1606) was painted with Hendrik de Clerck (Flemish, c. 1570–1630). Both cabinet pictures depict the plentitude and tranquility of the natural and human worlds.

The Male Nude – Hercules and Saint Sebastian

Although the predominant nude figure in paintings from this period was female, the male nude also plays an important role in the story of the monarchs’ collecting and patronage. In 1634, Philip IV commissioned Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664) to paint a series of ten paintings for the Hall of the Realms in the Buen Retiro Palace, a space of significant ceremonial and political function within the palace complex.

The Hercules series is arguably the most important group of male nudes in Spanish painting. Zurbarán used strong light and shadow to model the anatomy, articulating limbs in a highly contrasted manner to bring out the musculature. This approach was well suited to the powerful and heroic physique of Hercules, whose nude form became a metaphor for royal authority and power. Two paintings from the series, Hercules Defeats the King Geryon (1634–35) and Hercules and the Hydra (1634–35) are presented in the exhibition. 

In the early seventeenth century religious painting found a new visual language that sometimes utilized the human body provocatively. Images of saints, created as inspiration to the faithful during the Counter-Reformation, were remarkable for their realistic depiction of the pain of martyrdom and the joy of religious ecstasy. Saint Sebastian, the martyr ordered killed by the Roman emperor Diocletian, was a frequent subject of such devotional pictures. Sebastian is usually shown bound to a tree and shot with arrows in what turned out to be a first failed attempt at killing him.

Three noted portrayals of Sebastian are included in the exhibition, allowing for a consideration of different approaches to the depiction of the saint in the Counter-Reformation and in the rendering of the male nude. Jusepe de Ribera’s version (1636) emphasizes the saint’s inner experience as he quietly accepts his death and prepares to give up his soul and enter Heaven. In contrast, Guido Reni’s (Italian, 1575–1642) earlier painting (c. 1617–19) displays a languid eroticism. At some point in its history, probably during the eighteenth century, the picture was considered too risqué, and the saint’s loincloth, which suggestively slips down his midriff, was extended upwards to hide more of his right thigh and lower abdomen. Juan Carreño’s (Spanish, 1614–1685) depiction of Sebastian’s suffering (1636) shows the influence of Venetian and Flemish painting on Spanish Baroque painters with its combination of rich color and carefully defined contours. 

Like Reni, Guercino (Italian, 1591–1666) often drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and included the nude in religious paintings. Susannah and the Elders (1617) depicts the apocryphal Old Testament story of Susannah being propositioned by the town’s elders. When she refuses their advances, she is threatened with accusations of adultery. This masterpiece of composition and color is as much about voyeurism as it is about the tale of Susannah. Guercino shows the elders observing Susannah from their hiding place, capturing a moment of great physical and psychological tension. One of the old men leans into the viewer’s space, extending his hand to warn us to keep still, so as not to alert Susannah to our presence. Thus, Guercino makes the viewer a participant in this sinful indulgence.

The exhibition is the latest in a series of ongoing cultural exchanges between the Prado and the Clark. In 2010, the exhibition Pasión por Renoir, an exclusive presentation of the Clark’s suite of thirty-one canvases from its noted collection of works by the French Impressionist master, drew some 370,000 visitors, making it the fourth-highest attended exhibition in the Prado’s history. Javier Baron, the head of the Prado’s Nineteenth-Century Paintings Department and curator of Pasión por Renoir, subsequently completed a fellowship in the Clark’s Research and Academic Program (RAP) in 2011. In 2013, RAP welcomed Gabriele Finaldi, then the Prado’s Deputy Director for Collections and Research (and now the Director of the National Gallery, London) as a fellow.

Splendor, Myth, and Vision is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue (200 pages, $50) published by the Clark and distributed internationally by Yale University Press. Catalogue entries by Clark and Prado curators, among others, accompany an essay on the Spanish royal taste in collecting by Javier Portús, head of the Prado’s seventeenth-century Spanish painting department, and a contemporary response to understanding the nude in Renaissance and Baroque painting written by Jill Burke, senior lecturer in the history of art at the University of Edinburgh.

Major underwriting for Splendor, Myth, and Vision is provided by Denise Littlefield Sobel. Generous contributors include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation, with additional support from Jeannene Booher, the Robert Lehman Foundation, and Katherine and Frank Martucci. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.


Tags: old masters

  • Email