Good for: Paintings
Lonely Planet review for Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
One of the most extraordinary private collections of predominantly European art in the world, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is a worthy member of Madrid’s ‘Golden Triangle’ of art. Where the Museo del Prado or Centro de Arte Reina Sofía enable you to study the body of work of a particular artist in depth, the Thyssen is the place to immerse yourself in a breathtaking breadth of artistic styles. Most of the big names are here, sometimes with just a single painting, but the Thyssen’s gift to Madrid and the art-loving public is to have them all under one roof. Its simple-to-follow floor plan also makes it one of the most easily navigable galleries in Madrid. Not surprisingly, it often ends up being many visitors’ favourite Madrid art gallery.
The collection is spread out over three floors, with the oldest works on the top floor down to the contemporary scene on the ground floor. We suggest starting on the 2nd floor and working your way down.
The 2nd floor, which is home to medieval art, includes some real gems hidden among the mostly 13th- and 14th-century and predominantly Italian, German and Flemish religious paintings and triptychs. Unless you’ve a specialist’s eye, pause in room 5 where you’ll find one work by Italy’s Piero della Francesca (1410-92) and the instantly recognisable Portrait of King Henry VIII by Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), before continuing on to room 10 for the evocative 1586 Massacre of the Innocents by Lucas Van Valckenberch. Room 11 is dedicated to El Greco (with three pieces) and his Venetian contemporaries Tintoretto and Titian, while Caravaggio and the Spaniard José de Ribera dominate room 12. A single painting each by Murillo and Zurbarán add further Spanish flavour in the two rooms that follow, while the exceptionally rendered views of Venice by Canaletto (1697-1768) should on no account be missed.
Best of all on this floor is the extension (rooms A to H) built to house the collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Room C houses paintings by Canaletto, Constable and Van Gogh, while the stunning room H includes works by Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro and Degas.
Before heading downstairs, a detour to rooms 19 through 21 will satisfy those devoted to 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters, such as Anton van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Rubens and Rembrandt (one painting).
If all that sounds impressive, the 1st floor is where the Thyssen really shines. There’s a Gainsborough in room 28 and a Goya in room 31 but, if you’ve been skimming the surface of this at times overwhelming collection, room 32 is the place to linger over each and every painting. The astonishing texture of Van Gogh’s Les Vessenots is a masterpiece, but the same could be said for Woman in Riding Habit by Manet, The Thaw at Véthueil by Monet, Renoir’s Woman with a Parasol in a Garden and Pissarro’s quintessentially Parisian Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Room 33 is also something special with Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, while the big names continue in room 34 (Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani), and 35 (Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele).
The baroness’ eye for quality is nowhere more evident than in the 1st floor’s extension (rooms I to P) where the names speak for themselves. Room K has works by Monet, Pissaro, Sorolla and Sisley, while room L is the domain of Gauguin (including his iconic Mata Mua), Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Rooms M (Munch), N (Kandinsky), O (Matisse and Georges Braque) and P (Picasso, Matisse, Edward Hopper and Juan Gris) round out an outrageously rich journey through the masters. On your way to the stairs there’s Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room.
On the ground floor, the foray into the 20th century that you began in the 1st-floor extension takes over with a fine spread of paintings from cubism through to pop art.
In room 41 you’ll see a nice mix of the big three of cubism, Picasso, Georges Braque and Madrid’s own Juan Gris, along with several other contemporaries. Kandinsky is the main drawcard in room 43, while there’s an early Salvador Dalí alongside Max Ernst and Paul Klee in room 44. Picasso appears again in room 45, another one of the gallery’s stand-out rooms; its treasures include works by Marc Chagall and Dalí’s hallucinatory Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate, One Second Before Waking up.
Room 46 is similarly rich, with Joan Miró’s Catalan Peasant with a Guitar, the splattered craziness of Jackson Pollock’s Brown and Silver I and the deceptively simple but strangely pleasing Green on Maroon by Mark Rothko taking centre stage. In rooms 47 and 48 the Thyssen builds to a stirring climax, with Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Henry Moore and Lucian Freud, Sigmund’s Berlin-born grandson, all represented.
The story behind the museum’s collection is almost as interesting as the paintings themselves. And it is a very Spanish story that has a celebrity love affair at its heart. The paintings held in the museum are the legacy of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, a German-Hungarian magnate. Madrid managed to acquire the prestigious collection when the baron married Carmen Tita Cervera, a former Miss España and ex-wife of Lex Barker (of Tarzan fame). The deal was sealed when the Spanish government offered to overhaul the neo-Classical Palacio de Villahermosa specifically to house the collection. Although the baron died in 2002, his glamorous wife has shown that she has learned much from the collecting nous of her late husband. In early 2000 the museum acquired two adjoining buildings, which have been joined to the museum to house approximately half of the collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. She remains an important figure in the cultural life of the city – when the city authorities threatened in 2006 to tear down some 18th-century trees outside the museum to facilitate the rerouting of the Paseo del Prado, the Baroness threatened to chain herself to one of the trees in protest. The plan was quietly shelved.