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Nudes from the Prado

Splendor, Myth, and Vision

by Kathryn Boughton

Imagine owning a masterpiece painted by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, or some other Grand Master, and having to keep it hidden away from prying eyes. That was the situation experienced by two Spanish kings of the 16th and 17th century who loved pictures of nudes.

Philip II and his grandson, Philip IV, amassed one of the greatest collections of nudes ever known—one palace alone had 76 paintings by Titian, 62 by Rubens, and 43 each by Velazquez and Tintoretto—but, faced with the disapproval of the Catholic Church, which considered nude depictions as sinful and contrary to religious and moral values, the paintings were rarely viewed by the public.

Signifying the discomfort these pictures, expressly forbidden by the Spanish Inquisition, could elicit was the reaction of the interim monarch, Philip III, who, for the sake of “modesty and virtue,” had his father’s collection removed.

Today, the works that Philip II and Philip IV commissioned, loved and cloistered in their salas reservadas—private or reserved spaces open to only a select few—have a much wider audience at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. And now 28 of the best examples of this collection are on loan to The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown MA.

The Clark is the exclusive venue for Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado, an exhibition that explores the role of the nude in European painting in the 16th and 17th centuries and the collecting and display practices of the Spanish royalty. Twenty-four of the paintings have never before been shown in America.

The works presented in Splendor, Myth, and Vision were selected not only for their relationship to the exhibition’s themes, but also for their beauty and historical significance. Included in this sensuous exhibition are major paintings by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacopo Tintoretto, Diego Velázquez, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Guercino, Nicolas Poussin, Luca Giordano, Guido Reni and Jusepe de Ribera.

Paintings portraying the nude played an important role in early modern Europe. The depiction of the nude in secular and sacred paintings appealed to collectors’ taste for the sensual, but such images could also express a wide array of meanings—from the erotic to the moral—and testify to the significance and complexity of this subject for artists and patrons.

Women today might envy the definition of pulchritude these Renaissance women enjoyed. The damsels portrayed in the paintings were fat, fair and dimpled. Not for them calorie counting and calisthenics. The artists have lovingly depicted them in all their fleshy glory.

But not all the pictures are solely of women. Several depict ensembles of men and women in various stages of undress. There are two paintings by Francisco de Zurbaran depicting a naked Hercules and three eroticized renderings of the martyr Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows. Less sensuous are pictures of the two Spanish monarchs.

Splendor, Myth, and Vision is co-organized by the Clark Art Institute and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Major underwriting is provided by Denise Littlefield Sobel and Diane and Andreas Halvorsen. Generous contributors include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation, with additional support from Jeannene Booher, the Robert Lehman Foundation, Katherine and Frank Martucci and Richard and Carol Seltzer. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition continues through October 10th. The Clark is located at 225 South Street In Williamstown MA. For more information call 413-458-2303 or click on the link below.