San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts Madrid Spain.

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Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Top choice in Madrid

The Real Academia de Bellas Artes, Madrid’s ‘other’ art gallery, has for centuries played a pivotal role in the artistic life of the city. As the royal fine arts academy, it has nurtured local talent, thereby complementing the royal penchant for drawing the great international artists of the day into their realm. The pantheon of former alumni reads like a who’s who of Spanish art, and the collection that now hangs on the academy’s walls is a suitably rich one.

In any other city, this gallery would be a standout attraction, but in Madrid it often gets forgotten in the rush to the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza or Reina Sofía. Nonetheless, a visit here is a fascinating journey into another age of art; when we tell you that Picasso and Dalí studied at this academy (long the academic centre of learning for up-and-coming artists), but found it far too stuffy for their liking, you’ll get an idea of what to expect. A centre of excellence since Fernando VI founded the academy in the 18th century, it remains a stunning repository of works by some of the best-loved old masters.

The 1st floor, mainly devoted to 16th- to 19th-century paintings, is the most noteworthy of those in the academic gallery. Among relative unknowns, you come across a hall of works by Zurbarán (especially arresting is the series of full-length portraits of white-cloaked friars) and a San Jerónimo by El Greco.

At a ‘fork’ in the exhibition, a sign points right to rooms 11 to 16, the main one showcasing Alonso Cano (1601–67) and José de Ribera (1591–1652). In the others a couple of minor portraits by Velázquez hang alongside the occasional Rubens, Tintoretto and Bellini, which have somehow been smuggled in. Rooms 17 to 22 offer a space full of Bravo Murillo and last, but most captivating, 13 pieces by Goya, including self-portraits, portraits of King Fernando VII and the infamous minister Manuel Godoy, along with one on bullfighting.

The 19th and 20th centuries are the themes upstairs. It’s not the most extensive or engaging modern collection, but you’ll find drawings by Picasso as well as works by Joaquín Sorolla, Juan Gris, Eduardo Chillida and Ignacio Zuloaga, in most cases with only one or two items each.

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