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Guidepost cover, 10 December 1965


Ed’s note: A very revealing article. It paints a perfect picture of  the world-famous Prado Museum 52 years ago. Equally important: it offers an insightful glimpse of the key people who ran the museum.
Guidepost was a very young 7-year-old then!



By Brooke McKamy


Gone are the days when museums carried on their business quietly and discreetly. Now, when a Rembrandt sells for over $2,000,000 as the famous Aristotle Contemplating The Bust of Homer did two years ago, the news makes international headlines. Modern, well-equipped museums hungry for new acquisitions are springing up all over the world. Art museums and their directors, especially in the United States, are gaining more and more public attention; witness the recent stir caused by the dismissal of Director Richard F. Brown by the Los Angeles Museum’s Board of Trustees.

An exception to this trend is the stately Prado Museum, whose policies programs, and acquisitions are considered private museum business and not newsworthy subjects for a curious public. The museum has neither facilities nor desire for publicity. There are no photographs available for the press of Sr. [Francisco Javier] Sánchez Cantón, the director of the Prado. “After all,” sniffs one museum official, “he writes the catalogue which is available [to the punlic], and that’s far more important than his picture, isn’t it?”

Señor Cantón, a distinguished and well-known figure to the select inner circle of the art world, avoids the public eye as much as possible. Born in 1891, he has had an illustrious career, and in 1960 became Prado’s director.

He has worked with the museum since 1922. . . but he has not limited himself solely to museum work. Besides writing a great many articles and critical essays for art magazines and publications every year, he also has written books for the Patronato Nacional del Turismo, such as Walks Through Madrid and Excursions To Its Environs.

“Tesoros de la Pintura en el Prado” by Sanchez Canton, 1963

Mammoth Undertaking. He made his first trip to the United States in 1930, when he was invited for the inauguration of the building of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At this time, the Frick Museum of New York asked him to write the catalogue for their Spanish collection. In 1949, the Hispanic Society of America awarded him the Medalla de Artes y Literatura, and in 1961 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

His main duties [as director of the museum] consist of handling the budget, writing the catalogue, and receiving museum representatives from all over the world. . . Planning, revising and organizing the catalogue takes up most of his time, as it is a mammoth undertaking, and only comes out every five or ten years. . . His life has been devoted to his work, not to personal fame, and he keeps aloof from journalists or newsmen of any kind. This attitude has influenced his staff in their reactions to the attention of the press. . .

A bit more accessible is the Assistant Director, Xavier de Salas. Hailing originally from Barcelona, he took his first studies there, then went on to Madrid, Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Returning to Barcelona, he taught at the university as a full professor until 1939, when he was appointed as the director of the Barcelona Museum of Fine Arts. After eight years there, he was asked by the government to help build up the Spanish Institute in London. He planned to stay only a year, but found he liked it there so much that the year stretched into fifteen. . . In 1961, he was called back to Spain to be the Assistant Director of the Prado.

A typical day for Señor de Salas begins before ten, and he uses the morning hours for administration duties. Such duties include receiving visitors with questions and requests, and reading the mail which comes from all over the world. In one morning alone, he received the Swedish Ambassador, who wished to discuss the Art Exhibition to be held in Stockholm under the auspices of the Council of Europe in 1966, an architect who wanted to look at some old Spanish drawings and plans in the museum’s private library, and two officials representing a museum in Japan, who asked him to write an introduction for their catalogue.

Forbidden territory. The afternoon is devoted to the duties suggested by his official title: Keeper of the Paintings and Head of Restoration. He supervises the restoration, care and upkeep of all the paintings in the museum.

The restoration room, a studio on the ground floor, is forbidden territory for all but museum officials. Working there are nine men, six of whom restore only paintings, one who works on sculpture, and one who takes care of frames and all the decorative art objects. . . Canvasses are relined, wood is treated for better preservation, and paintings and sculptures are carefully cleaned.

Señor de Salas has visited the United States several times for the combined purpose of sightseeing and museum checking. He has probably seen more American museums than most Americans, and has not only visited the great ones of New York, Washington and Chicago, but also the smaller ones of Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Louisvil. . .

There is one aspect of the American way of life, however, that he does find disagreeable, and that is the competition and rivalry of American museums. “We at the Prado are not in a competing market,” he says with finality. “We have our representatives at major auctions, but are not truly interested in out-bidding anyone for the sake of publicity and prestige. In the first place, we have so little room in the museum for our own paintings, and secondly, we do not have the funds that other museums seem to have. We would like to improve and complete some collections, but mostly rely on private gifts or purchases. . .”

Assets and Faults. The museum hardly needs to compete, for it contain s not only the greatest collection of Spanish art to be found anywhere in the world, but also is particularly fortunate in having some of the most famous works of Flemish, Dutch and Italian artists. Although perhaps a bit weak in English art, it does contain an excellent sampling of European art for a good over-all survey. . .  It is also impossible to complete a study of Bosch, Titian or Rubens, to name just a few, without a visit to this famous museum.

The Prado Museum photographed in 2017

But along with its assets, it does have its glaring faults. The visitor’s chronic complaint is that there is simply not enough light, and what there is often reflects so on the canvas that the paintings are impossible to see anyway. Of course, the building was not designed originally for an art museum, but for a natural science museum. Finished toward the end of the eighteenth century, it was not used until 1819, when it was opened as the Royal Art Gallery. Apparently this problem of lightning is being corrected, but slowly, to be sure.

Most newly constructed museums have, as standard equipment, temperature and humidity controls, so that the climate of the museum can stay the same year round. This is to protect canvases from cracking, wood from drying out, and for the general preservation and protection of the works of art. The attitude of the officials of the Prado seems to be that since the paintings have lasted for hundreds of years so far in all sorts of weather, there is no reason to doubt that they will last just as well without temperature controls.

Quiet Routine. The Prado has very few shows or exhibitions; the main reason for this is lack of space, but also probably, a general lack of enthusiasm for such projects. . .

The people who run the Prado enjoy their quiet routine, and are content to let the recent trends pass them by. Their business is most definitely considered their private business . . . Abridged.



Featured image: Guidepost cover December 1965
“Prado” by Sanchez Canton, Fair use
Prado Museum 2017/Alan & Flora Botting, CC BY-SA2.0