Spanish Art History

The history of Spanish art is quite remarkable; many different artistic movements have taken place within the peninsula throughout the centuries. Learn more about them.
Small-sized Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque churches, Gothic wood-carvings, triptychs and illuminated books are some fine examples of the Christian side of Spanish art history, while the Moorish palaces and mosques of Al-Andalus (Granada, Cordoba, and Seville) form an important part of the Muslim side of the country's diverse cultural heritage.

16th-century Spain welcomed the influence of the Italian Renaissance, as many Spanish artists visited the neighboring country to acquire first-hand knowledge of the latest aesthetic and technical developments. The Spanish Renaissance was characterized by the prominence of religious subject matter since the Church was the main patron of the arts. Painting and literature, however, would flourish in the 17th century, which is regarded as the Golden Age of Spanish culture. Seville, Madrid, and Valladolid were active artistic centers, attracting painters such as El Greco, Ribera, and Velázquez, and writers such as Cervantes, Quevedo, and Góngora. While pictorial subject matter barely altered, religious themes would now be painted with naturalistic realism. Monarchs commissioned portraits and history paintings, into which artists gradually introduced new sources of inspiration, often taken from everyday life.

The decadence of the Baroque led to Rococo and then to Neoclassicism, movements which were clearly indebted to their French counterparts. The most significant painter of the 18th century was Francisco de Goya. A painter of notable portraits of the monarchy (The Family of Charles IV), Goya would subsequently focus on social and political subject matter, turning to the French occupation of Spain to depict the horrors of war. Practically confined to his home La Quinta del Sordo (so called due to the artist's deafness), Goya devoted the last days of his life to darker, even mournful, subject matter.

Spain's contribution to 20th-century art can be summed up in two essential and revolutionary movements, Cubism and Surrealism.

Spanish Cubism was a reaction to traditional modes of representation, characterized by single viewpoint perspective. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque abandoned this premise, thereby introducing the fourth dimension (time) in painting. The style was characterized by its use of geometric shapes, interlocking planes, and austere color range; it would also receive the influence of primitive art, chiefly African tribal masks and Iberian pottery.

Surrealism, which followed on from the radical anti-art movement Dada, sought to explore and express the subconscious, both in painting and in literature. The irrational imagery of dreams, drawing largely on Freudian theories, would be an important source of inspiration for Surrealist poets and painters, both representational and abstract, as exemplified in the works of Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró.