A number of great artists have lived and worked in Spain. Among the most famous are El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso, one of the most prolific artists in history and a major figure in 20th-century art.
16th Century: El Greco (1541-1614)
It was during the reign of Philip II that the first great genius of Spanish painting, El Greco, settled in the country. He was born in Crete and worked in Italy before moving to Toledo in about 1577. His highly emotional style gave powerful expression to the religious fervour of his adopted country but it was not to Philip’s taste. El Greco consequently enjoyed little royal patronage but he produced a succession of magnificent altarpieces for churches in Toledo.
In 1586 El Greco painted one of his greatest masterpieces, The Burial of Count Orgaz, for the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. This work, still in place, portrays a 14th-century Toledan nobleman laid in his grave (in actuality situated just below the painting) by St Stephen and St Augustine. Above, the count’s soul rises to a heaven densely populated with angels, saints, and contemporary political figures.
17th Century: Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)
The artist probably most loved by the Spanish people is Velázquez who painted religious pictures and also occasional mythological scenes and tavern scenes with a prominent still-life element. He worked primarily as a portraitist and in this field he was acknowledged as one of the greatest artists the world has ever known.
His masterpiece, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, 1656, Prado), is a stunning group portrait of the royal family and Velázquez himself in the act of painting.
18th Century: Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
The greatest painter of his time in Spain and also probably the most powerful and original figure in the visual arts in the whole of Europe was Francisco Goya. In his time he was best known as a portraitist but he is now equally renowned for other types of work including the powerful engravings that he made showing the atrocities of the French occupation of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.
19th Century: Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923)
Goya was an isolated genius and after him there were no painters of European standing in 19th-century Spanish art although there were some charming minor masters, such as Joaquin Sorolla, whose work—influenced by Impressionism—is characterized by brilliant colour and vigorous brushwork. His distinct ability to depict the effects of light comes across strongly in many of his beach scenes of his native Valencia.
20th Century: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
One of the most prolific artists in history was Pablo Picasso who spent most of his life in France but his work often used imagery from his native country. The bullfight was a favourite subject and his most famous painting, Guernica (1937, Centro Cultural de la Reina Sofia, Madrid), was inspired by his revulsion at the bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War.
Joan Miró (1893-1983)
Of the modern Spanish painters who remained in Spain the most illustrious was Joan Miró. He spent a good deal of time in Paris but lived mainly in and around his native Barcelona and later on the island of Mallorca. An immensely prolific and versatile artist he created a distinctive and witty style blending Surrealism and abstraction.
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)
A flamboyant painter and sometime writer, sculptor and experimental film-maker, Salvador Dali was probably the greatest Surrealist artist using bizarre dream imagery to create unforgettable and unmistakable landscapes of his inner world. His most famous work is The Persistence Of Memory. The Dalí Museum in Figueres is one of the top attractions in Catalonia.