October 28, 2012

"Autour du Chat Noir" Montmartre 1880-1910

Let's take a step back in time and return to the Paris of 1895.  It's evening, actually quite late, we've been eating and drinking and smoking and now we are sitting in a cabaret, listening to Yvette Guilbert singing "Je suis pocharde [I am a lush]" just before a chorus line of lovely ladies take the stage to perform the high kicking can-can with their frilly petticoats on full view.  The audience is thrilled and responds noisily.  Everyone is there - Jules Cheret, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Erik Satie, Aristide Bruant - all the luminaries who frequent the "boîtes de nuit" in Montmartre.

And there are many to chose from - Au Lapin Agile, Le Divan Japonais, Le Moulin Rouge - but the original, and one of the most popular, is Le Chat Noir, the Black Cat, a center for music and dancing since its inception in 1881 and the unofficial symbol of Turn-of-the-Century Montmartre.

Which brings me to the reason for this fantasy night out.  A very special exhibition is now on view at the delightful Musée de Montmartre that captures the esprit of this watershed period.  "Autour du Chat Noir:  Arts and Pleasures in Bohemian Montmartre" is an expansive look at the sights and sounds, the art and entertainment, the characters and the patrons of Fin-de-Siècle Paris.  Guest curated by Philip Dennis Cate, an expert in the field, and complemented with a plethora of first rate loans, this exhibition brings to life the "Gaité Parisienne" of the epoque.

I had never visited the Musée de Montmartre.  In fact it's an area that I usually try to avoid because of the crowds of tourists and those who prey upon them in the environs of Sacré Cœur.  But I had received an invitation to the opening of this show and though I could not attend the party, I was very keen to see the exhibition.  So on a fine Sunday in October, I took two buses across Paris to the base of Mont Cenis and walked up the steep incline to rue Cortot.  Housed in the former studio of Renoir and bordering the last remaining vineyard in Paris, is an absolute jewel of a museum dedicated to preserving the art and history of Montmartre.

Founded in 1960, the museum has recently come under new management who have undertaken an extensive renovation of the house and gardens and the inaugural exhibition "Autour du Chat Noir" is a perfect way to celebrate the revival of this historic property.

When impresario Rodolphe Salis first opened Le Chat Noir, in two small rooms at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart in the heart of bohemian Montmartre, he could not have imagined that its impact would be felt to this day.  Apart from being the first modern cabaret where patrons sat at tables and drank bad wine while enjoying live entertainment on a stage, Le Chat Noir inspired artists and performers whose work lives on to this day.  Like, for instance, the iconic poster art of Steinlen, Ibels and Toulouse-Lautrec, or the singing and dancing of Jane Avril, La Goulue and Loïe Fuller.

Three and a half years later, Le Chat Noir moved to larger, more luxurious quarters in a former mansion at 12 rue Victor Masse (see right) where it became an even bigger draw and a hub for "modern" art.  Paris at that time was a magnet for artists and writers who sought to challenge established ideas and traditional expression and thus a breeding ground for avant-garde movements such as Impressionists, Symbolists and the proto-Dada group known as the Incohérents. 

With over 200 works on display from ephemera to paintings, and a whole room devoted to the marvelous shadow theater cut-outs of Henri Rivière, this exhibition brings to life the energy and excitement of the era.  I was looking forward to visiting this show but I was not prepared for how completely fascinating and transporting the experience would be.  It was a perfect Sunday afternoon in Vieux Montmartre!

October 24, 2012

Promenades in Paris

After a great few days in London it is time to board the Eurostar for a quick two and a quarter hour trip through the Chunnel from St Pancras Station to the Gare du Nord!  Although the weather is rainier than in England, it is great to be back in Paris.

Of course there is a lot going on here too.  Like "Impressionism and Fashion" at the Musée d'Orsay that was so crowded on the Sunday afternoon I visited they had to temporarily close the museum!   Drawing on the museum's exceptional holdings of Impressionist paintings, with a few first class loans, the curators presented some very familiar works in an entirely new setting, and with the added feature of costumes and accessories that correspond to the works on view.

In a sort of fashion show of paintings, the styles of the Victorian era are modeled in works by Manet, Renoir, Monet, Degas and my personal favorite James Tissot who was not an Impressionist painter but almost a costume artist known for his meticulous attention to detail.  Of particular interest, beyond crinolines and ruffles, was the section dedicated to "Artists and Men of the World" where I learned that while "more was more" in women's clothing, menswear at the time was the polar opposite.  Indeed, the 19th Century man wore basically two outfits, one for the day and one for the evening, both in sombre colors with little adornment.  Imagine the challenge for artists who had to create interest and luminosity out of basic black.

On an entirely different note is "Chaïm Soutine, Order out of Chaos" that recently opened at the Musée de l'Orangerie, in the Jardin des Tuileries.  Soutine may not be everybody's cup of tea, but I have always loved his distorted portraits of tradespeople, with the heavy application of vivid colors enhancing the oddity of the pose.

Chaïm Soutine was a Russian Jew who arrived in Paris in 1913 to study painting.  Although he struggled in the beginning, his career skyrocketed in 1923 when he was introduced to the American collector Dr. Albert Barnes who bought 60 paintings on the spot.  Financially secure, Soutine could pursue his own vision in art which verged on the disturbing but has ultimately stood the test of time.  Like his series of still lifes "Bœufs écorchés" that was inspired by the master Rembrandt but nearly drove his neighbors mad.  His subjects were carcasses of beef, delivered fresh from the abbatoirs and kept glistening with the regular spraying of blood.  The stench was unbearable, but the resulting paintings are fascinating in their realism, if not something one would want hanging in his dining room.

Still on the Right Bank but toward the Trocadéro at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is another new exhibition entitled "L'Art en Guerre, France 1938-1947" a sobering examination of the art created in the shadow of and during World War II.  Beginning with the International Surrealist Retrospective of 1938 and its eerie foreboding of the oppression to come, moving to the Nazi occupation of France and the rounding up of "undesirables", including many artists, into camps, the exile and hiding of artists whose lives were in peril during the war, and finally the Liberation.  The theme of the exhibition is the resilience of artists - many of whom continued to work despite threats and a lack of materials - and the importance of art in people's lives, no matter what the circumstances.   Some of the works were very powerful, like Picasso's "L'Aubade", 1942 (above) and some were very touching as they were created out of scraps while incarcerated in the camps.  Some artists continued to have big careers and others did not survive or were forgotten.  But all were driven to make art.

Moving to a cheerier subject, I visited the absolutely gorgeous exhibition "Canaletto - Guardi:  The Two Masters of Venice" on view through January at the Musée Jacquemart-André.

18th Century aristocrats often brought back souvenir paintings of their travels, referred to as "veduta" an Italian word that refers to a highly detailed, usually large-scaled work depicting a cityscape or view.  As the Grand Tour became de rigeur for the upper classes, very often the subject of choice was a scene of Venice, particularly the Grand Canal or Piazza San Marco, and the artist of choice was Canaletto or his follower Guardi.  Both painted in a very realistic, almost photographic, style although Canaletto is considered almost scientific in his precision while Guardi was more emotional.

For the first time these two masters of the genre are being exhibited side-by-side on a theme-by-theme basis to compare the similarities and differences in their approaches.  For me, and maybe this is just because I am more familiar with Canaletto's work, the magic lies in his eye for detail and the beautiful light.  Not that I would turn down a painting by Guardi, but I found his paintings a little darker and less exquisite in their execution.  Both painters were masterful.

One interesting fact - the British Royal Family has the largest collection of Canaletto works in the world, acquired by King George III from the collector Joseph Smith and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is listed as lender of four paintings and four drawings to this exhibition.

Finally, one of the big shows of the 2012 season is now at the Louvre as they present "Late Raphael", a look at the mature works of the Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.  Considered one of the greatest Italian painters of the period, at this point in his career, Raphael was well established and working on many commissions for altar pieces, private devotionals and portraits.  So many, in fact, that he relied on his extremely talented pupils and assistants to complete these works.

For the first time ever, this exhibition examines the drawings and paintings executed in Rome during the last years of the artist's life while recognizing the contributions of these collaborators.  With exceptional loans from The Prado, and also Queen Elizabeth, the show celebrates Raphael's exceptional artistic talents but with the acknowledgement that he did not act alone.  Raphael will always be credited with technical virtuosity and an extraordinary sense of grace (his Madonna's faces are the most beautiful I've ever seen) but he worked with a very good crew who continued his tradition even after his death.  It's teamwork at its best!

I leave you with a view of the Seine taken from the Pont Neuf looking West, shortly after a rainstorm.  As you can see, autumn has arrived in Paris and a stroll along the river is absolute magic!

October 16, 2012

What's On In London

After three days of sun and fun in beautiful Madrid, it is off to London where the weather is gray but there are a lot of great things to see and do.

Let's start at the main reason for my visit, the inaugural Frieze Masters art fair, an offshoot of the ten year old Frieze Art Fair held in a tent in Regent's Park.  While the original Frieze concentrates only on contemporary art, i.e. nothing created before the year 2000, Frieze Masters is broader in scope offering works from ancient art and artifacts up until 1999.  For me, this fuller spectrum is far more interesting as there is truly something for everyone's collecting or viewing interests.

Like, for instance, the marvelous, tiny carved Eskimo tools and implements on the stand of Galerie Meyer, Paris.  Or the three carved stone gargoyles from a French cathedral on the stand of Sam Fogg, London.  Or the Calder mobiles slowly spinning to 1920s jazz music on the stand of Helly Nahmad, London.  Or the plethora of modern masters on the stand of Acquavella Galleries, New York.  Some likened this fair to a mini Maastricht and while I thought there were some very fine exhibitors, the fact that it was held in a tent and the wall colors were limited to white, grey or black, made it far less elegant than the sumptuous booths in Holland.  Nevertheless, it seems to be quite a success with a lot of quality material and a lot of visitors too.

There are also several terrific exhibitions now on view at various London museums.  I had read about and was very keen to see the Tate Britain's fall presentation "Pre-Raphaelites:  Victorian Avant-Garde".  Considered Britain's first modern art movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or "PRB" as they cryptically signed their canvases) was established in 1848 as a reactionary group rebelling against the art establishment and the industrial age.  By 1860 they had metamorphosed into the Aesthetic Movement in which Beauty became the ideal and reality was left by the wayside.

Drawing from their own rather substantial collection rounded out by some very fine loans, the Tate Britain has brought together over 150 works in various media including painting, sculpture, photography and the applied arts, by such luminaries as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.  It was a gorgeous exhibition, well curated and clearly explained and I was in total Victorian Heaven!

I also wanted to visit the Tate Modern and rather than descend into the depths of the Tube, I opted for the fun and efficient ferry service that runs from the Tate Britain on Millbank, past the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament to the Tate Modern at Bankside where I was fortunate to be able to catch the exhibition "Edvard Munch" which was closing in just a few days.

Edvard Munch's work was recently the center of attention with the sale of his masterpiece "The Scream" that now holds the record as the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.  But this was not a retrospective of the artist's œuvre.  Rather than re-hash his already well known paintings and prints of the 1880s and 1890s, "Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye" looks at the work done in the 20th Century, with a particular focus on his experiments with photography and film.

While this Norwegian artist is probably best known for his images of angst, torment and alienation he was more than just a tortured soul.  Certainly never cheery or lighthearted, the works on display offer a different perspective of the artist's efforts at coming to terms with his demons.  I did not leave the exhibition feeling on top of the world, but I did feel that I had a better understanding of his method and motivation.

Another hot ticket in London these days is the exhibition "Bronze" at the Royal Academy in Picadilly. I must confess that the subject of bronze had never been too compelling, but a friend whose opinion I trust insisted that I go, so I did.  Wow!  Was I glad I listened!

Covering all periods of bronze sculpture from Europe, Africa and Asia, the show is arranged not chronologically but according to subject.  At first it can be a little jarring to see an artifact from 1,100 B.C. next to a 20th Century work, but it ultimately all fits together to show just how versatile and important bronze has been to art and decoration since it came into use as an artistic medium over 5,000 years ago.

On display are over 150 tour de force examples of the bronze casters craft.  Exquisite 14th Century Benin figures from Nigeria are as compelling as Benvenuto Cellini's larger than life statue of Perseus and Medusa from 1840.  Picasso's 1951 "Baboon and Young" stands alongside an Egyptian "Seated Cat" from 300 B.C., which stands next to Giambologna's realistic "Turkey" commissioned by the Medicis to decorate their garden grotto in 1517.  All of these works are guarded by an Etruscan "Chimaera of Arezzo" whose lion body, snake tail and goat head coming out of its back must have been fearsome in its time!

The Royal Academy's presentation of bronze objects, Gods, heads, figures and relief sculptures was absolutely fascinating.  A remarkable look at a not very well known, but certainly worthwhile subject and an exhibition I was very happy to have seen.

I commemorated my last night in London with a special treat - a concert held in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, right next door to the National Gallery.  I had only ever heard recordings of this renowned orchestra and was thrilled to have a chance to see them live.  Imagine beautiful music by Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart and Bach, played by candlelight in this historic church.  It was pure magic and the perfect end to a very nice few days in London.

October 14, 2012

Three Days in Madrid - Day Three

It has been a beautiful stay here in Madrid - sunny, warm days, absolutely delicious food and drink, friendly people and a lot of great art!  Although I have eaten, drunk and "museum-ed" myself silly, these are my favorite occupations and I have only 24 more hours to indulge!

Madrid's City Hall

There remained two major museums and one foundation on my list of "must-sees" so I started at the farthest point, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, across the boulevard from the Prado.  Opened in 2002, the Thyssen showcases the art collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family, once the second largest in the world after the British Royal Family's.  With an emphasis on portraits and landscapes as opposed to the wealth of religious and historical paintings in the Prado, the Thyssen serves to fill-in-the-blanks of Renaissance art.  More recently, under the influence of the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, the fifth wife of the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza, the museum's holdings have expanded to include Impressionist, Expressionist and Spanish, European and American Modern Art.  In fact, the museum's holdings now span Western art from the 13th through the 20th centuries although to varying degrees of quality.

Unfortunately I was just a few days too early to see the Thyssen's special exhibition for fall 2012 "Gauguin and the Voyage to the Exotic" but there was a small and very interesting showcase of "Orientalisms in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections".  In an effort to contextualize the collection, the museum periodically focus' on a particular artist or period and displays a choice selection of works together in a special gallery.  In this case the microscope was on "Orientalism", a predominantly French style from the 19th century that drew on the exoticism of oriental and middle eastern subjects.  I was surprised to see a beautiful oil by the American artist William Merritt Chase entitled "The Kimono" (below) prominently featured in both the gallery and the advertising!

The next stop along the "Golden Triangle of Art", as this stretch of the Paseo del Prado is known, is the newest addition to the cultural scene - The Caixa Forum.  Housed in a former power plant that was redesigned by the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron (who won the Pritzker Prize for their work on the Tate Modern in London), the site also features a fantastic vertical garden with 15,000 plants and flowers.  Sponsored by the Spanish banking concern La Caixa, it is a fantastic exhibition space for temporary art shows and events. 

On view until October 21 is a comprehensive survey of the work of British poet, artist and engraver William Blake (1757-1827).  A man ahead of his time, Blake never compromised his rather avant garde views in the interest of financial success.  His complex symbolism was criticized as "in poor taste", "absurd" and "disturbing", yet he had a huge influence on future generations of artists especially the Pre-Raphaelites.

I was not too familiar with the work of William Blake but I left with a keen appreciation for his exquisite draftsmanship and a respect for his ideas.  Thanks to substantial loans from the Tate Britain, The Caixa Forum's exhibition presented drawings, prints, illustrated books and paintings that captured Blake's intense commitment to the struggle between good and evil, women's equality and his criticism of the power wielded by the Church.  Generally quite small in format, these works on paper were typical of Blake's eye for space, color and dynamism of the human body.  I found it captivating.

Finally, after a cup of coffee and a little something sweet, I headed to the third stop of the day, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the modern and contemporary arm of the "Golden Triangle".  Founded in 1990 and housed in a 16th Century hospital building, the museum has recently undergone a major expansion including an annex by French architect Jean Nouvel. 

The collection consists primarily of European works of art from 1900 to the post-modern era with the star of the show being Picasso's epic "Guernica" (above).  Painted in 1937 as a response to the bombing of the Basque town of the same name during the Spanish Civil War, this enormous painting became the symbol of the tragedies of war.  Originally displayed at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, it toured the globe and brought international attention to the plight of the Spanish people.  Eventually the painting found a home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was a major draw.   Picasso himself stated that the painting was not to return to his native Spain until the Spanish people enjoyed a republic with the attendant "public liberties and democratic institutions".  That day finally arrived in 1981 with the death of Franco and Spain's return to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

This powerful painting is now part of a special exhibition entitled "Encounters with the 1930s" a look at how art influenced and in turn was influenced by the events of this turbulent decade.  Spread over two floors and divided into six sections including Realism; Abstraction; International Expositions; Surrealism; Photography, film and posters; and Spain:  The Second Republic, the Civil War and exile, this is a thorough (maybe too thorough) examination of the period.  It was not surprising that the curators emphasized the Spanish experience, but I thought that the artistic premonitions of World War II were not given much attention.  Overall, the show had some very interesting sections - particularly the World's Fairs of 1930 and 1937 - but I felt that "less would have been more" as the enormity of the show was overwhelming.

Given the country's current fiscal crisis and the recent public protests I was a little apprehensive as my day of departure came closer, but amazingly I saw absolutely no evidence of civil discord.  The city itself was clean, the streets and buildings well maintained, the tapas bars and restaurants doing a brisk business and the people I met were extremely friendly.  I had a wonderful time in Madrid with its gorgeous sunny weather, the delicious food and drink, the beautiful paseos and plazas and of course, the fabulous art. 

October 09, 2012

Three Days in Madrid - Day Two

After a good night's sleep and a substantial breakfast I was ready to hit the museum trail again.  Today's goal was to visit the Monasterio de Las Descalza Reales, literally the Convent of the Barefoot Royals, to see their little known but supposedly very strong collection of art and artifacts, and also to visit the Museo Sorolla located in the actual home and studio of one of Spain's most beloved painters, Joaquín Sorolla.

The Monasterio had limited hours of operation and admittance was only as part of a guided tour - in Spanish - so I tackled that first.  It was only a short walk from my hotel, in between the Puerta del Sol and the Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace), but when I got there people were already lined up - as it turned out for nothing as all of the morning tours were already sold out.  There was nothing to be done until the ticket office re-opened after lunch, at 3 PM.  So I checked my map and had a nice walk through some hip and residential neighborhoods to get to the Paseo General Martinez Campos and the Museo Sorolla.

Entering through a walled garden with a beautiful pond and fountains I had an inkling that I was visiting a very special place.  I already knew that Joaquín Sorolla was one of my favorite painters.  I had discovered his work at an exhibition in 2007 at the Petit Palais in Paris entitled "John Singer Sargent and Joaquin Sorolla - Painters of Light", and again more recently at the Queen Sophia Spanish Institute in New York where his series "The Vision of Spain" was on view.  But there is a special magic that happens when you visit the place where the artist actually lived and worked.  Despite the busloads of tourists, this phenomenon can be experienced at Monet's Giverny and Cézanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence, and here, where the crowds are much slimmer and the setting virtually untouched since his day, one can truly appreciate Sorolla's genius.

The house was built in 1911 to Sorolla's specifications as a functioning studio, exhibition space and home for his wife, Clotilde, and their three children.  It became a museum in 1931 with the couple's only son as the first director.  While the work areas have been cleared out somewhat, the entire home retains the original decorations and furniture and the walls are filled with his oils.  It is like stepping back in time.

With the artist's easel, desk and collected treasures arranged almost as they had been in his time, and the walls covered "salon style" with his paintings, one gets a real feeling for his curious mind, his love for his family and, of course, his amazing ability to capture light and mood in his works.  It is no wonder that on the rare occasion a Joaquín Sorolla's painting comes on the market it fetches a very high price.

After enjoying a few quiet moments in the shade of the garden it was time to head back over to try my luck with the Monasterio tickets again.  I got in the queue at about 2:45 and by the time the doors opened and I got to the ticket window I was able to procure the last spots in the last tour of the day.  I  celebrated this small victory with a drink and some tapas and a nearby cerveceria but returned in very good time to join my tour.

A little history here - The Monastery of the Barefoot Royals is situated in the rather forbidding, at least from the outside, former palace of King Carlos I and his wife whose daughter, Joanna of Austria, founded the convent in 1559.  In the beginning, the nuns entering this convent were of Royal or at least aristocratic descent who were either widowed, disappointed in love, or wanted to devote their lives to being "brides of Christ".  Upon entering the convent, each of these noblewomen pledged a dowry which more often than not consisted of an artistic masterpiece or a religious treasure.  The convent quickly became one of the richest in Europe.

By the 20th Century the women entering the convent were no longer aristocrats but generally quite poor and the costs of maintaining the institution were mounting.  In 1960, through a special Papal dispensation, El Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales was permitted to open as a museum and charge the public an admission fee.  Twenty five years later it was rated as "Museum of the Year" by the European Council.

Aware of this story and in great anticipation of the treasures purported to lie within, I started on my tour.  By the second room I realized that this was going to be extraordinary.  I don't speak much Spanish but it didn't take a linguist to understand the names "Titian", "Breughel" and "Rubens"!  Nor does it require a degree in theology to realize the importance in Catholic and church history of pieces of the "True Cross" or the bones of Saint Sebastian.  Room after room, shrine after shrine, treasure after treasure - all of the highest quality.  And unlike many churches I have visited over the years, everything was perfectly maintained, the altar cloths starched and ironed, the frames and paintings immaculate.

When we were ushered out at 6 o'clock on the dot, with the doors firmly shut behind us, the perfect end to this magical day was to toast Madrid and its marvelous art with a Mahou beer and some delicious snacks at the famous Dolores Tapas Bar.  What would the Barefoot Nuns say?!?!?!

October 07, 2012

Three Days in Madrid - Day One

¡Hola! from sunny Madrid - home of tapas, flamenco dancing, bullfighting and for the next three days, yours truly!  Founded in the Middle Ages by Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba as a Muslim stronghold, the city was taken over by Christians in 1085 and absorbed into the Kingdom of Castile.  Modern history is best defined by the Spanish Civil War in which the city earned the dubious distinction of being the first European city to be bombed by airplanes in 1936 but also benefited from the economic boom during the Franco years.  Today Madrid is the capitol city of Spain, the seat of the Royal Family headed by King Juan Carlos I and a treasure trove of art and culture.

For me, the obvious place to start a tour of Madrid was at the Museo Nacional del Prado, one of the world's great art museums and a "must-see" for any visitor to the city.  Not surprisingly, the main strength of the collection is Spanish painting from the middle ages to the beginning of the 20th Century, but Italian and Flemish art is well represented also.  Although The Prado's curators actively add to the holdings, the foundation comes from the Spanish Royal Collection dating back to King Carlos V.  The museum was opened in 1819 with an inventory of 1,510 paintings from various Royal Residences.  Today it owns over 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, of which only a very small fraction are on display.

I had visited The Prado about seven years ago on my first and, up until now, only visit to Madrid.  It was June and very hot outside but quite pleasant in the museum.  I started on the ground floor with my audio guide and by the time I made it upstairs to the rest of the collection I had seen so many fantastic works that my eyes were glazing over.  This time I decided to begin on the second floor and see what I had missed the first time around.  Wow!  What an experience!  The first four hours just flew by - steadily paced but viewing every work and playing the recorded descriptions when available.  We all know the highlights - Velázquez's "Las Meninas" (left), Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (above), Breughel's "The Triumph of Death", Goya's "The Naked Maja", Rembrandt's "Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes" (below), El Greco's "The Holy Trinity" and Ruben's "The Three Graces".  These are the "greatest hits" of any history of art survey and they are magnificent to see in person.  It was the less well known pieces that truly capture the imagination.

For example, the 17th century oil, one of only six surviving works, by Juan Sanchez Cotán "Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit" is about as 20th century Modern a composition as you can imagine.  And the small but exquisite "Agnes Dei" by Francisco de Zuberán (below) is so realistic you could rub the lamb's ears.  Juan Carreño's "Eugenia Martinez Vallejo Naked" is a remarkable nude portrait of an aristocrat's child who weighed nearly 150lbs on her sixth birthday and José de Ribera's depiction of Magdalena Ventura plight as "The Bearded Woman" are fascinating in their strangeness.  A collaboration between Jan Breughel (the Younger) and Peter Paul Rubens produced a series of paintings on "The Five Senses" with Venus and Cupid as the central characters while "sight" is an art gallery, "sound" is a music studio, "smell" a flower garden, "taste" a banquet and "touch" features the contrast between metal armour and soft kisses.

Finally, even I had had enough.  My feet were tired and my eyes were out of focus.  I was on "art overload" and it was time to do something else.  The perfect diversion was right next door to The Prado in the Royal Botanical Garden or Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid, a beautiful place to sit and relax and enjoy the incredible variety of flowers and trees.  Founded in 1755 by King Ferdinand VI, the garden has been expanded and improved to include 30,000 plants and 1,500 trees divided into three major gardens and four greenhouses.  I loved the greenhouses - the original one from 1900 with mature and exotic trees planted in the decorative cast iron and glass conservatory, and the new high tech version that was divided into three sections simulating desert, semi-desert and tropical climates.

It was a lovely day and my mind was spinning with all the beautiful things I had seen, both natural and man made.  But I knew what to do!  As Madrileños do not dine before quite late in the evening, the traditional snack is tapas or "small plate", usually consumed with a beer or an aperitif, around our usual suppertime.  I took myself to a very nice outdoor café, settled under the linden trees with a red Spanish vermouth and a nice plate of goodies and slowly came back to the 21st century!  It was a glorious day.