If Spanish artists have proven one thing over the centuries, it is this: Great art breaks convention. It speaks out against the establishment and turns on its head the mainstream notions of self-expression. Here are six ingenious Spanish artists that define six crucial periods in art history, and six remarkable eras in their country’s past. All these artists—with the exception of Gaudi—are represented in El Prado, Madrid’s repository of art.
Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Without question, Picasso and Gaudi created works that represented a shift in artistic sensibility. But another artist, Salvador Dali, took that shift into an entirely different direction—surrealism. Dali is most famous for his painting entitled The Persistence of Memory, in which a quartet of pocket watches melts in a cartoonish, lifeless, desert landscape. The work was meant to shake up our ideas of time and space. Interestingly, it may well have been the scientific advancements of his day that inspired Dali’s work; it followed on the heels of Albert Einstein’s theories that suggested the relativity—and the fluidity—of time.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Though Picasso is often associated with the bohemian artistic wave that washed over Paris in the 1920s, he was Spanish through and through. Nowhere is this made plainer than in his masterwork, El Guernica. In this huge canvas—measuring 11.5 feet by 25.5 feet—he depicted the German bombing of the Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War with horrific images of suffering and terror. More generally, Picasso is known as one of the founders of the Cubist movement, the avant-garde style in which the subjects of paintings were broken apart and reassembled on canvas in an abstract form. It’s considered by many art historians as the most influential artistic movement of the 20th century.
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)
A contemporary of Picasso in his later years, Gaudi’s Art Nouveau architectural work enlivens the streets of Barcelona. His most famous work remains unfinished, La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. True to the spirit of the great cathedrals of Europe, its construction has been undertaken by generations of builders—the first stone was laid in 1882 and it is slated for completion in 2026 on the centenary of the artist’s death. Overall, Gaudi’s work defied convention with its curvilinear approach. He achieved a new language of architecture, resulting in a lyrical optimism ripe with color and energy and intense ornamentation. The beauty of his work and its depiction of the Roman Catholic faith have earned him the nickname, “God’s Architect.”
Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
Though Goya was the official painter of the Spanish Royal Crown, he harbored a subversive side. During his service to the king and queen, he painted portraits and undertook other royal projects, but he drew a series of dark and violent sketches that protested the horrors of the Dos de Mayo Uprising (the May 2, 1808 insurrection against French forces) and the subsequent Peninsular War. Later in life, he retired to the Quinta del Sordo just outside Madrid. In this country house, he painted 14 “Black Paintings” directly on its walls. The most famous and disturbing of these is Saturn Devouring His Son, a gruesome work based on the Greek mythological figure who consumed each of his children out of fear that they would overthrow him. Scholars believe these paintings stand as profound outrage toward Spain’s civil conflicts of the day.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velasquez (1599-1660)
If it’s an intimate portrayal of the 17th-century court of King Philip IV you’re after, look no further than the works of Velasquez. The baroque-era painter has been called the chronicler of Spain’s Golden Age. He was a true insider, a trusted confidante of the royal family who painted dozens of portraits in the realist fashion. Just four years before his death, he painted Las Meninas (translated as The Maids of Honor). This is the most recognizable of his works, and one of the most analyzed paintings in Western art. In it, the royal child Margaret Theresa is doted upon by an entourage in a large room of the Alcazar of Madrid. Some of them gaze out toward the viewer as if in snapshot, while Velasquez himself stands at an easel gazing at the viewer, as if he is painting this scene by looking into a mirror. In its play on perspective and point of view, it is a brilliant depiction of the philosophy and intent of art that is years ahead of its time.
El Greco (1541-1614)
Though the painter, sculptor and architect Domenikos Theotokopoulos is most closely associated with Spain, he was born in Greece (hence his name, El Greco) and studied his craft in Venice and Rome. It wasn’t until age 36 that he moved to the hillside city of Toledo—at the time Spain’s religious capital—where he was commissioned to paint some of his best-known work. He was most influenced by the Mannerism style of the Renaissance, in which proportions are elongated and “subjects” pose in a highly stylized or exaggerated manner. Many historians, however, say that El Greco’s style is so unique that it cannot be categorized. Much of his work came to adorn the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, but his most famous is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which portrays a philanthropic local hero being buried by Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine while astonished citizens look on and heavenly images float above.