Madrid’s Best Art Museums: Prado vs. Thyssen

Artwork from the Prado and the Thyssen including Bosch and O'Keefe

The Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum are two of the main attractions in Madrid’s Museum Triangle and they’re featured in every decent guidebook to the city. I was lucky enough to spend a few hours in each one during a trip to Madrid, but I know not every tourist has the opportunity to do this, especially on a tight schedule or budget. That means it’s time to weigh up the options and compare the two, from their collections to their visitor experiences, and the nitty gritty of opening hours and ticket options.

For convenience, I’ll be abbreviating them:

MNP = Museo Nacional del Prado

MTB = Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Madrid architecture of galleries
Never judge a book, or a museum, by its cover. Credit: Prado by Brian Snelson, Thyssen by Gellerj, via Wikimedia Commons.

History

MNP opened its doors in November 1819 with over 1,500 paintings from the Royal Collection inside. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries more pieces were added from auctions, private donors and from two other Spanish museums. Today, visitors can enjoy an extended building with more items on display than ever before, topped off by a new lecture theatre, and the longest opening hours of any European museum.

The Paseo del Prado’s impressive Palacio de Villahermosa is home to the MTB, which has only been open since 1992. Everything on display comes from the private collection of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his widow, Carmen. The Baron particularly loved German Expressionism, abstract art and North American painting – basically, he had great taste. Visitors can add to their experience with a drink or a meal at the cafe, the restaurant or the summer terrace.

Portraits of young men from art history
Albrecht Durer (working the Robert Plant hair) and Sweerts’ Boy in a Turban. Credit: Wikimedia Commons and EssentialVermeer.com.

Permanent Collection

MNP is best known for its ’15 masterpieces’ which include The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1500-1505), Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656), and Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait from 1498; what art historians won’t tell you is that Dürer resembles a 70s era Robert Plant. The galleries also have a huge collection of sculptures, ranging from classical Greek and Roman statues to those from the 1800s.

One of my favourite Prado pieces is Half-submerged Dog by Francisco de Goya (c.1820-23), with a tiny dog poking its head up from the canvas edge. This is part of Goya’s Black Paintings series. I’d also recommend Fable by El Greco (c.1580) because it’s a really informal portrait for the time it was created, and it draws in the viewer.

Meanwhile, MTB is more famous for relatively recent artworks, such as Charing Cross Bridge by Claude Monet (1899), New York Street with Moon by Georgia O’Keefe (1925), and Hotel Room by Edward Hopper (1931). Don’t miss Robert Rauschenberg’s Express (1963), which combines screen printed photos and oil painting, merging different images based on the theme of speed.

MTB’s earlier works include Adam and Eve by Hans Baldung Grien (1531) and La Piazza San Marco in Venice by Canaletto (c.1723-4). My top picks are the close-cropped and unforgiving Portrait of a Stout Man by Robert Campin (c.1425), and the unintentionally comic Boy in a Turban holding a Nosegay by Michiel Sweerts (c.1655), where the model looks pretty reluctant to be there at all.

Tapestry by Goya for royal family and boat painting by Dufy
What to catch when you visit…  Goya and Dufy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons and Revistadelarte.com.

Temporary Exhibitions

MNP is about to wrap up an exhibition on Titian’s Poesie series (ending 1st March 2015), and is currently showing ‘Goya in Madrid’ until 3rd May 2015. Goya already has a strong position in the permanent collection, but this shows a different style of his work. In 1755 he came to Madrid to create tapestry cartoons for Spain’s royal palaces; the exhibition compares his cartoons to that of other artists.

MTB recently finished staging its first fashion-based show, a Givenchy retrospective, which ran until 18th January 2015 and was curated by Hubert de Givenchy, the founder of the fashion house. From 17th February – 17th May 2015, MTB hosts a major retrospective on Spanish artist Raoul Dufy, who was aligned with several different art movements including Cubism, Fauvism and Impressionism.

Inside the great art exhibition spaces in Spain with famous oil paintings
Which one do you prefer? Credit: museodelprado.es and Best-museums.com.

Making the Most of Your Visit

MNP is a vast space and there’s a lot of content for your ticket price. If you’re really time-poor but determined not to miss out, the New York Times has a ‘Prado in 45 minutes’ guide that should help build the perfect varied itinerary. There are also two apps to download, featuring online galleries, suggested routes and easy social sharing options to brag to your friends. If you’re really into the academic side of things, check out Pradomedia on iTunesU (the educational branch of iTunes), full of audio and video files that will enhance your visit.

MTB offers thematic tour ideas to print out or scroll through as you walk through the different rooms – try the Fashion route for starters. You can also download interactive exhibition brochures onto your Smartphone or iPad, either before you arrive, or using the 4 hours of free Wi-Fi access allotted to visitors (the network is called mtb_free). Additionally, the museum has a series of apps for children and adults, has contributed to the Google Art Project and offers a virtual tour.

Madrid's top art attractions compared by price
In case you’re sticking to a budget, here’s a breakdown of costs to visit each museum.

Verdict

I honestly don’t think one museum trumps the other one outright in terms of the collections or the experience for tourists. Some people might find the traditional oil paintings and religious art of the MNP a little too heavy for their tastes, whilst others might struggle to grasp some of the more simplistic pieces in the MTB, but they’re both really important in terms of art history.

Looking at entry prices and related costs, the MNP is definitely the cheapest, but anyone able to visit both should consider buying a Madrid Card, from €47 for 24 hours, granting access to a huge number of attractions, including free entry to the MNP and MTB (but temporary exhibition entry is charged at the MTB). Alternatively, a Paseo Del Arte ticket costs €25.60 and gives you one free visit to both sites, plus the Reina Sofia Museum nearby, over the course of a year. Again, temporary exhibitions at the MTB aren’t covered. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you enjoy exploring Madrid’s art heritage.

1963 painting and print by American artist using transfer methods.
Express, by Rauschenberg, in all its glory. Credit: robertrauschenberg.tumblr.com.

Visiting Notes:

MNP – Museo Nacional del Prado, Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23 – is open Monday-Saturday from 10am-8pm and 10am-7pm on Sundays and holidays; it’s closed on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December, and has reduced hours on January 6th and December 24th and 31st. Last entry is half an hour before closing.

MTB – Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado 8 – is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-7pm (all collections) and on Monday from 12 noon-4pm (permanent collection only); it’s closed on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December, and has reduced hours on 24th and 31st December. Last entry is one hour before closing.

You can’t take any food or drink into either building and you’ll have to leave any large bags, suitcases, and umbrellas in the cloakrooms, which are free to use.

Both museums have good public transport links and cater for disabled and visually impaired visitors. There are special rates for groups, so check the websites for more information.

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