The History of Beauty as Defined by the Prado



Every Tuesday for the last six months I had the opportunity to attend the course: La historia de la belleza. De Fidias a Picasso (The history of Beauty from Phidias to Picasso), at the Prado Museum. The panoramic course inaugurated with a lecture dedicated to the Classic Greek conception of beauty and traced the evolution of this concept throughout the subsequent centuries in Western Art. Each conference attempted to explore the limits of the traditional application of Classical Beauty as defined by the Greeks, by demonstrating the degree to which each artist or group of artists adhered to different principles defined by the Classical canon to produce beautiful art. One common thread found throughout the discussions was the insistence upon the artist’s agency in capturing the essential beauty of the world, as he (or she) saw it, in the media available, such as painting, drawing, or sculpture.


In October, Professor Francisco Calvo Serraller introduced the initial definition of Beauty in his talk, titled “¿Existe el arte sin belleza?”. According to Professor Calvo Serraller, not only does Western Art emulate the mathematical and proportional model established by the Greeks, but also Western artists of all generations, like their Greek predecessors, strive to reproduce the world, as it appears to be. As such Beauty encapsulates a tension of forces, such as a young woman juxtaposed with an old woman, that cause the spectator to contemplate the world around him or her. Professor Miguel Ángel Elvira Barba followed this conference with a discussion of the beauty and ugliness found in Classic Greek art to reveal the antecedents of our current definition of Beauty. The final presentation of the month was given by Professor Isidro Bango Torviso, titled “Belleza y técnica en la Edad Media. Las deformaciones de una historia del arte caduca”, in which he attempts to correct the historiography, which tends to exalt the Renaissance, but criticizes the Medieval Period for its lack of Classicism. For example, many classic sculptures, produced in Rome and Greece were actually polychromed in a similar fashion to those produced throughout the Middle Ages. However, during the Renaissance the pure marble model was adopted as the true image left by the Greeks and subsequent interpretations of historians followed their prescriptions, such as the well-known Wincklemann who declared “a beautiful body will be all the more beautiful the whiter it is” in reference to the nature of sculpture. Thus relegating the Medieval Arts to a lesser category; however, conferences such as this one, serve to prove that we can no longer assume the Medieval Period to be a break from all classical models.

The four conferences held in November dealt with the various implementations of Beauty throughout the Renaissance. The first given by Professor Antionio Manuel González Rodríguez, titled “Fra Luca Pacciolli y la sección aúrea” explained the mathematical evolution of perfect proportions, which were essential to the Renaissance vision of Beauty. While Professor Víctor Nieto Alcaide discussed how Giotto changed the model of representation throughout his era. Giotto might not have shown the same classical tendencies as Michaelangelo, the pinnacle of this movement, but, as Professor Nieto Alcaide explained that does not discredit both Giotto’s and Massaccio’s efforts because there was not one fixed definition of classicism, but rather a myriad of interpretations depending upon the interests of the artist and the time. Building upon this theme, Professor Leticia Azcue Brea focused her intervention on the representation of the nude male by sculptors ranging from Donatello to Bernini to demonstrate the evolution of the representation of beauty throughout the history of sculpture. Accordingly, Donatello employed the heroic nude body in his David as a classical means to present the hero of the biblical tale. In Michaelangelo’s version of David we find a stronger inclination towards the subtle classical tendencies, especially present in the hands and face. Finally arriving at the David produced by Bernini who focused not on the beauty of the male figure, but rather the torsion and expression of a figure in movement. The final conference of the month, titled “Rafael y el no sé qué”, given by Professor Miguel Falomir, discussed Rafael’s conception of beauty. For Raphael, a beautiful body was composed of the individual parts, where might each be found in nature, but not necessarily found in the same person. This caused the artist to reunite the disparate beautiful parts into one figure producing an intangible, sublime visual experience, typically called “no sé qué” in Spanish or “je ne sais quoi” in French.

Moving forward chronologically from the Renaissance, in the three conferences of December we studied the expression of Beauty found in art produced throughout the seventeenth century. The first conference I missed due to being in Doha, but my colleagues recorded the discussion and hopefully this week I will find the time to listen to Professor Gabriele Finaldi’s conference: “Annibale Carracci y la Galería Farnese”. The second presentation, given by Professor Alejandro Vergara, discussed the enigmatic figure of Rubens, who sought to invigorate every canvas he touched with the divine presence, ranging from the eyes of portrait to the landscape of a historical painting. Professor Javier Portús gave the final presentation of the year focusing on the classical aspects found in Diego Velzázquez’s art. According to Portús, Velázquez radically broke the traditional classical principles, by combining the classical aspects with naturalistic ones. For example, in his painting The Drinkers Velzáquez depicts mythical figures associated with drinking and revelry, such as Bacchus, on the left-hand side of the painting; whereas, on the right-hand side of the canvas he paints contemporary figures, seamlessly blending the two seemingly disparate modes of representation into one coherent painting.

The New Year began with three international and interdisciplinary conferences. The first conference by Professor Agustín Sánchez Vidal was dedicated to how the eccentric and amorphous representations of art fit within the cannon of classical art. As such, Greek artists used optical corrections in their art, with one such example being the Parthenon, because they understood that the spectator relied upon their perspective and eyesight to form a coherent object. Therefore, art did not have to actually be perfect, but appear to the eyes to be perfect, which led to various distortions to produce the desired effects. Amorphous art by its definition is a deformed version of an object to arrive at a clearly defined representation of an object; therefore, in this sense eclectic works produced in the Baroque period by artists, such as Guiseppe Arcimboldo, represent this classic trait of illusionistic perspective. In the second conference of the month, we explored the auditory qualities of Beauty present in the music of Bach. Musician Ramón Andrés, though a moving and interesting conference, helped us to understand how Bach opened the door for musicians to intellectually describe the state of one’s mood in a piece through counterpoints, rather than relying upon purely a narrative or lyrical story. The final conference of the month, “Ingres Strange Beauty” was presented by Professor Christopher Riopelle. By focusing on the early struggles of Ingres’ career Professor Riopelle demonstrated how Ingres adopted his later eclectic style by copying and referencing models that were outside of the neoclassical cannon, such as Jan van Eyck or Holbein’s Henry the VIII.

In the final month of the course, we explored considerably more modern interpretations of the classical canon. The first presentation given by Professor Bozal examined Goya’s tendency to create monsters, contemporarily speaking figures antithetical to Beauty, that were instead the visual incarnations of sublime pleasure. According to Allison, a contemporary to Goya, monstrosity was defined in terms of great mountains that instead of producing fear elicited pleasure. Therefore, these images produced by Goya should not be cast aside, but rather incorporated into a discussion of the tendency towards finding and depicting the beautiful in the world. The second conference highlighted a similar idea by explaining how one could find beauty in a deformed face. Professor Victor Stoichita combined a study of classical portraits with contemporary art installations to prove that the incarnation and deformation of the face form the limits of art. In a passionate conference, Professor Luis Fernándo Galiano explained how the five twentieth century architects – Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aato, and Louis I Kahn – who changed the language of modern architecture, were each compatible with the classic architectural canon. The final conference offered in the cycle was given by Professor Manuela Mena, who explored how Pablo Picasso utilized the classical conception of beauty in his works, especially in his depiction of women. According to Professor Mena Picasso did not utilize beauty in the same style as the Renaissance artists, but his insistence on capturing the reality in whichever form the final figure appeared in constitutes a reiteration of the principles of beautiful art.

As these brief summaries of each conference demonstrate, in the last few months, we covered many different techniques, artists, and periods of history in hopes of finding the essence of Beauty in Western Art. As underscored by each professor, the concept of beauty should not be judged in the output of an artist, but rather his or her intentions to capture the essence of the world around him or her. If any of these summaries piqued your interest, you can find the corresponding lecture on ITunesU; however, I must warn you that only the lecture on Ingres is in English.


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