To study art is to study the world. Each culture around our globe has boasted its share of brilliant individuals who have, through their vision and skill, created works which endured through the ages as jewels of their people. This summer, as I left the United States for the first time in years, I was fortunate enough to encounter some of these jewels. Studying abroad in Spain and vacationing in Greece, I had the grand opportunity of being within the homes of some of the most famous and influential artistic cultures in history, a perfect chance to express my inner nerd and explore some museums.
Though Madrid has a million and one tourist sites, the Museo del Prado may be its crown jewel. One of the greatest art museums on the globe, El Prado holds within its historic walls thousands of the best works of Spanish art, including Las Meninas.
Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez
Often heralded as Diego Velazquez’ finest work, Las Meninas is a painting of international renown. The piece has been studied extensively throughout history, and I myself have taken a special interest in it. However, for all the times I had seen the painting on a computer screen, I was simply not prepared to see it in person. The painting, which is over 10 feet tall, loomed over me with a powerful presence, the complexity of its composition and historical importance adding immeasurable gravity to the canvas. Standing before Velazquez’ masterpiece, I was able to appreciate it in a way not possible without its enigmatic aura, a solid reminder of why I have always enjoyed exploring art museums.
But my journey to El Prado found me encountering yet another marvel, one which I must admit surprised me. As much as it shames me to confess, I had previously never seen Francisco Goya’s The Dog before I stumbled upon it in El Prado. In a way, I’m glad that was the case. Witnessing this painting for the first time in its full scale allowed me to fully appreciate the sensation of the image. While Las Meninas had impressed me with its complex composition, The Dog captured my attention for its sublime simplicity. With so little on the canvas, the work conveyed so much raw emotion, a testament to Goya’s artistic genius.
The Dog by Francisco Goya
However, my artistic explorations did not end in Spain. Though my time in Greece was dedicated to vacationing, I did not spend it all lounging on the country’s gorgeous beaches.
The shiny exterior of the New Acropolis Museum
Athens hosts a myriad of museums, but among all of these, the New Acropolis Museum stands as the grandest. Immediately, the name of the museum should indicate its uniqueness. The “New” part of the title comes from the fact that its actually the second Acropolis Museum built, with the first one residing on the Acropolis itself. However, instead of a large work of classical architecture to host the ancient artifacts, the new museum is a work of modern art. Its form is a stark departure from the other buildings in Athens, but this center is the perfect place for exhibiting the ancient art.
The bright and open interior presents the many timeless artifacts in a manner that highlights the grandiose nature of their existence. Each piece is considered a staple of Greek art and culture, so the museum’s minimalistic interior allows the focus to fall on the works. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the building’s respect for the history of its foundations. The modern structure connects with its ancient past by preserving and displaying the archeological site beneath it through its use of glass floors, and on the top level, with the windows providing an unobstructed view of the Acropolis, the Parthenon Marbles are arranged to emulate their original placements on the Parthenon.
The outside of the museum allows tourists to view the site’s ancient foundations
The ancient stone and modern steel come together for an elegant contrast
Visiting these world famous museums, these reservoirs of the greatest art in the world, made me appreciate the Princeton University Art Museum even more. El Prado and the New Acropolis Museum do an exemplary job of presenting visitors with the highlights of Spanish and Greek art respectively. However, while they are filled with prime examples of their culture’s greatest artistic triumphs, they are each limited in the scope of their artistic diversity. Our museum in Princeton University may not display Las Meninas or house Parthenon Marbles, but it does contain magnificent works from an immense range of cultures. The numerous pieces from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas make the art museum’s collection an incredibly diverse one, offering visitors a chance to explore a wide range of artistic styles and cultural heritages. This global focus is what keeps me returning to the art museum and remembering that the story of art history is one that encompasses every corner of the globe.