Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

The Prado: Spanish Culture and Leisure, 1819–1939 by Eugenia Afignoguénova

Reviewed by Oscar E. Vázquez

Eugenia Afignoguénova,
The Prado: Spanish Culture and Leisure, 1819–1939.
University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018.
295 pp.; 57 b&w illus.; maps and table; bibliography; notes; index.
$99.95 (hardcover); $49.95 (softcover)
ISBN: 978–0–2710–7857–1
ISBN: 978–0–271–07858–8

Tackling the history of Spain’s Prado Museum, one of the world’s most renowned and cherished arts institutions and a “universal” museum with encyclopedic collections whose provenance and patronage sources in many instances date over 400 years, would be a daunting task for any scholar. To tackle that history through the lens of leisure would pose further challenges of its own. Eugenia Afinoguénova has skillfully accomplished both in this noteworthy book that blends the administrative and political history of the Prado with an examination of the challenges posed by a range of actors, from monarchs and individual artists to administrators and critics.

This informative and highly readable work is a fresh take on the transformation of the Prado Museum from a monarchical eighteenth-century collection to an early twentieth-century national institution. While it supplements some of the important histories and studies of the Prado Museum, Afinoguénova’s book joins the ranks of more recent publications that view museums through any number of conceptual frameworks including museums as sites of power and disciplining practices, studies of museum collecting practices, of those examining the “invention” and development of museums in general, of display and the exhibitionary complex, as sites of wonderment and the construction of knowledges, or sites of ritual, or still further, in regard to the participation of urban and rural audiences.‍[1] This last element—the integration of the daily lives of various interested parties and the spaces associated with them into the Prado Museum’s development—is of special importance to Afinoguénova. She argues convincingly that to understand the cultural and political significance of the Prado is to “reconsider its interaction with the popular pastimes outside” of that museum (14); museum-going was not simply about art viewing, but rather was part of a “continuum” where the four spheres of leisure, religion, culture, and commerce converged to produce and embody the modern gaze.

Leisure, as suggested by the subtitle, is the thread that runs through the book; Afinoguénova sees the history of the Prado Museum, and museums in general, within the evolution of modern leisure. By leisure, Afinoguénova refers, at least in the case of Spain, to the festivals, fairs, theater, bullfights, horse races, exhibitions, street entertainment, and even coronation festivals, which all competed for spaces and audiences. Her approach draws on leisure studies in important ways.‍[2] But the differences between the varied forms of leisure mentioned above, including tourism, travel, and other pastimes outside of labor, become at times a bit blurred. This may be to her point: leisure activities contended with one another, and their spaces overlapped. The question of intellectual and museum pleasure, already deeply embedded within enlightenment notions of dilettanti refinement and the production of rational subjects for a nation’s progress, is examined as evolving from late-eighteenth century needs of the elite to the expanding definitions of museums’ functions in the nineteenth- and the early twentieth centuries. Relying on other scholarship dealing with the museum as commerce and spectacle (about which, more shortly), she highlights the contestation over the uses of spaces and the definitions of audiences.

Afinoguénova relates the Prado Museum to leisure by situating it among its surrounding sites, as well as by examining changes made to the layout of the museum’s interior. She offers readers a glimpse of the Prado Museum’s earliest foundations in the 1780s in the new building designed by architect Juan Villanueva to house a museum of natural sciences. However, Afinoguénova’s interest is much more in the geographic context than on the politics of the museum’s founding. This geography included the more rural “meadow” (prado), which ultimately lent its name to the building, and areas south of the present-day museum, such as the Pradera de San Isidro, which were originally sites of popular celebrations of certain Catholic saints’ feast days (verbenas). Meanwhile, the Paseo del Prado, the north-south thoroughfare immediately in front of the museum, became the leisured promenade of the elite. All these areas were being converted slowly but surely into entertainment sectors, as was occurring across Europe by mid-century. These areas of festivals, public celebrations, and other pastimes competed for spaces and places of their own on the calendar of annual civic and religious events, and continued to grow and expand, all eventually being called simply the “Madrid Fairs.” They were the “crowded and much-debated surroundings in, and against, and with which the museum developed” (13).

But these festivals and leisure street pastimes also began to encroach upon and threaten the scholarly activities presumed to be the sole function of the sanctified spaces of the museum. Directors of the Prado demanded that the area around the Prado “should become less open and more bourgeois” (76). As the city grew, city administrators wanted more “open leisure spots” while many other sectors were desiring more fences and gates. As such, at one point the museum’s landscaping at the southern entrance “became a civic cause just as street politics was transforming a semi-rural oasis next to the Botanical Garden [immediately next to the Prado building] into a site of class struggle” (115). After the 1868 revolution the Prado Promenade became a space for political demonstrations.

For Afinoguénova, the museum and its grounds are a contentious site rife with competition. Early chapters describe the rivalry between the monarchy, the state (congress and government ministries), and the San Fernando Academy, all of which attempted to control and define the museum, and she points to the added complexities produced by the interventions of the church. The San Fernando Academy, for example, argued for a museum of its own in competition with the monarchy’s collection. The crown, for its part, continued to claim power over the collections, which complicated the museum director’s position to downplay the monarchy’s role of embracing the “aesthetics of a balance between monarchy and the nation” (66) as had been the case for neighboring France. All the while, the government changed positions according to the needs of the conservative or moderate parties who controlled it.

Because of the different interests of the crown, state administrators, and academicians (as the major players), and because, as Afinoguénova argues, the idea that a stand-alone museum of painting “could be a relevant public exhibit” (35) was slow to develop in Spain, the museum site was fraught with tensions and battles surrounding the institution’s function. Afinoguénova affords readers a much wider and nuanced view of the uses and evolving debates about the function of the spaces immediately around the Prado and within the transforming urban context of nineteenth-century Madrid. Thus, her book contextualizes the Prado Museum’s development within Madrid’s urban history and planning (though the book’s aims are not set on an examination of extant spatial or urban theories). Probing, for example, in chapter 3, the grounds of the museum after 1868 and a revolution that dethroned the queen and nationalized much of the royal collections, she describes how the citizenry that now, at least symbolically, “owned the building and adjacent properties” (114) redefined the collections, their spaces, and the adjacent territory.

And what of the role of this “citizenry,” this public? If museum authorities frequently employed the term “public,” it did not, as the author rightly argues, always have positive connotations; museum authorities dreaded they would have to eventually “allow the public to ‘finally satisfy its curiosity’” (55) about the museum’s collections.‍[3] The introduction of museum entrance fees and “free” days only managed to complicate the meaning of “public,” and the relation between museums and their audiences. Afinoguénova argues that this new (paying) public was now largely bourgeois and defined in part through museum-going as leisure activity in a part of town that was increasingly controlled by state authorities and private investors with a shared “interest in imposing order on the city lands that were coming too close to the modern Madrid” (71).

Part of the challenge for Afinoguénova, therefore, is reading the museum as a site for the construction of class-based definitions of “public” by secular and civic players, and without her driving into a cul-de-sac of traditional, codified class distinctions. Afinoguénova does not dwell on the questions of who may have considered themselves bourgeoisie, how this class was constructed or, for that matter, how individuals may have materially performed such a distinction (though she notes how space and the act of looking helped define class). Neither is her point to find neat economic definitions of class. To steer away from such dead ends, she identifies three major forces within the “public” that helped shape the museum and its sites: middle-class public opinion, citizens who saw the museum as a privileged site, and an “apolitical yet loud majority” (119) that continued to gather on the promenade during festival days. It is a commendable strategy, although its resiliency throughout the book, if it was intended as a methodological structure, may on occasion wane. She argues that the museum became wrapped up in debates regarding the “public” precisely because the ritual of museum-going was part of class-based definitions of public (in the ways that, we might add, art collecting had for an elite class of previous centuries). And yet, definitions of leisure differed among and between classes and actors. For example, there certainly must have been differences between the “leisure” of Queen Isabel II—who evidently visited the Royal Museum only twice before her exile—and the leisure of palace or other government administrators, or more to the point, of the middle or lower classes in the last decades of the century.

The author sees the museum becoming both a stage on which actors appeal to ever-shifting audiences and a mechanism for the definition and management of “leisure.” If museums increasingly needed to pay attention to a “public,” they had to leave behind older strategies of appeasing royal, aristocratic, or congressional supporters because of their ambition to represent and to serve the nation. They had to address “the middle and working classes, . . . as citizens, regardless of how they understood national art” (139). Thus, because museums wanted to expand their constituency, and because they listened to what civil society had to say about collecting and exhibiting artifacts, “the question of how and why people should look at art also became political” (140).

This is a crucial, original point at the heart of the book. Leisure was becoming nationalized, even as classes disputed its meaning, at the same time as the very performance of looking at objects, be they commercial crafts in department stores, masterpieces, or cult objects, became blurred. And here she shares the views of other scholars such as Tony Bennett and his examination of the “exhibition complex,” or Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her understanding of how museums create value and cultural knowledge through the control of the gaze.‍[4] However, Afinoguénova argues that leisure itself was constructed and played a crucial role in the transformations of looking.

All across Europe, the investments in the ‘leisure zone’ had already been consolidating for decades around the art museums and had resonated inside, where looking at other visitors instead of the masterpieces had become standard. The aesthetization of crafts, initiated in the museums in the 1850s and increasingly popular, moved this capitalist gaze into every bourgeois home. Now politics was turning citizens into objects of aesthetic contemplation (142).

Leisure therefore is enmeshed in the preferences of looking and the gaze, which the state and other official entities attempted to both exploit and control. Late nineteenth-century nationalism “conjured two types of displays giving different agency to national subjects” (143): one of rural populations and the other privileging urban middle classes. “Requiring a gaze that could glide with ease across performance, object, and artistic representations, they were aimed at the same audience but did not exclude each other” (143). For agrarian exhibits, it was fairgrounds, and for the urban working class, it was the local festival. By century’s end

. . . both types of activities were urbanized and enjoyed popularity among all classes. . . . Asserting that even if there was nothing inherently educational in looking at the exhibits themselves, museum-going was still a civilizing pastime capable of uniting the nation, [writers] began to cite museums alongside fairgrounds and fete galantes (courtship parties) as examples. (143–44).

Art museums helped set in motion the “relational economy of leisure, entertainment, and representation” of “this modern—embodied and collective—way of looking.” She writes that “art spectatorship was now officially recognized as a group—and sometimes a crowd activity” that was understood as leisure, but increasingly to fall under what she describes as the late nineteenth century “pedagogical takeover of museums” (141–42).‍[5]

The debates over definitions and functions of spaces help Afinoguénova to explain why authorities sought to impose order on the constant mixing of sites of recreation and sites of official business, as well as the blurring between the public and private. The 1859 urban renovation plan for Madrid by Carlos María Castro, which marked new construction of city districts to the north of the museum as “aristocratic,” “middle-class,” and “working or trade class” sectors, is just one sign of the new ordering and attempted categorical control by class of the urban fabric. The Paseo del Prado, which had once been reserved largely for urban elite leisure, was increasingly becoming “an entryway” to all those new city zones (71).

Policing that controlled the unauthorized uses of museum grounds and their vicinities increased through the early years of the twentieth century, with directors pointing to issues of urban hygiene and public safety. By the first years of the new century, the consumption of alcohol, the erection of vending pavilions, and even the verbenas of San Isidro were prohibited in the Salon del Prado and in the museum’s vicinity. These observations are important for Afinoguénova because they show how leisure was intimately tied not only to public expression, but also to bourgeois law and control. She brings home this point by asking, perhaps in Bakhtinian fashion, “were the verbenas themselves merely another manifestation of class warfare?” (197).

The question of the proper use(s) of the museum may have been fraught with tension especially because it was linked to a fight over the now commercialized leisure (or “non-labor”) time of the general populace. Afinoguénova sees leisure ultimately as an organic consequence of the development of class definitions and formations, or perhaps even as a necessary tool of capital in the modern era. If leisure is ultimately a political construct related to capital, then the question by extrapolation would be, are museums—if defined as sites of leisure—a tool of capital? It is sometimes hard in the chapters to understand how leisure might be separated from other functions of the museum—for example, its functions as an administrative site and as a tool of nation building. Clearly, leisure was bound to the shifts of the economy and as such its definitions changed across the century. It may be perhaps for these reasons that the author focuses more on the varied battles over the site(s) and the different types of leisure played on and around museums grounds, rather than on any narration of a chronological development of the concept and performance of leisure.

In various chapters she turns to the organization of the spaces within the museum and the shifting notions of how to display works therein. For example, she examines evolving models of display, arguing, for the most part, that new interior arrangements and classifications of works of art reflect official insistence that these tell a national history. And while her book is more focused on the spaces in and around the Prado than on the museum collections or their provenance, she nonetheless pays attention to the museum’s administration, relying on primary archival materials. Afinoguénova’s careful reading of these documents reveals interesting insights into the contemporary politics. As one example, she notes the sensitivity on the part of the museum’s administrators (manifest in passages carefully underlined in red) to the printed newspaper column debates of 1887 between Ceferino Araujo Sánchez, who was often critical of the decisions of directors, and the responses from then director, Federico de Madrazo (150).

The book is organized chronologically in five chapters, each occupying approximately a fifteen- to twenty-five-year time span, with the exception of the introduction and chapter 4. Chapter 1 analyzes the attempts to institutionalize a royal public museum in the first few decades of the nineteenth century; chapter 2 discusses the monarchy’s attempts to make the museum both public and royal in the years leading up to the 1868 Revolution; chapter 3 details the years of the “sexenio liberal,” the six years immediately following the 1868 Revolution that dethroned Queen Isabel II and the ensuing brief liberal period before the restoration of the monarchy in late 1874; chapter 4 discusses the last quarter of the century, when the Prado museum became a fully nationalized institution; and chapter 5 examines the Prado in the “Era of the Masses, 1902–1936.” A valuable addition is Afinoguénova’s discussions of middle-class female visitors to the Prado and their questioning of men’s museum privileges. She includes examinations of the novels of Margarita Nelken, the first woman to lecture at the Prado, and of a semiautobiographical novel by Rosa Chacel. These often touch on themes related to works in the Prado and reflect the growing roles of women in the museum. (The number of females given permission to copy paintings in the museum had grown from about 9% of the total number in the last decades of the nineteenth century, to about 24% in the teens of the new century.)

Perhaps the ultimate statement describing the transition and transformations of the Prado from elite monarchical institution to popular high-end (though scholarly) entertainment is found in Afinoguénova’s quotation of the Deputy Director of the Prado Francisco Javier Sánchez Cánton. In 1932 he described the Paseo del Prado as merely the site shared by the museum with “two large modern hotels” (201). Under Sánchez Cánton, the Prado had become the most important exhibiting institution in the nation, but it was characterized by, in the words of Gaya Nuño (1955), a “total contempt for the visitor’s curiosity” (241), as was characteristic of Franco’s museum policy.

The volume’s approaches will be familiar to historians of visual cultures of the modern era. For historians of museums, however, and especially those of the Prado, Afinoguénova’s work offers new, valuable insights into intersections between this venerable and historically volatile site and a much wider social and urban fabric. It provides a much more nuanced, textured, and culturally rich history of the institution. Its refreshingly new approach will interest not only scholars of Spanish art and museums, but also students of nineteenth-century cultural studies generally.


[1] Important existing studies include Mariano de Madrazo, Historia del Museo del Prado, 1818–1868 (Madrid: C. Bermejo, Impresor, 1945); Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño, Historia del Museo del Prado, 1819–1969 (León: Everest, 1969); idem., Historia y guía de los museos de España (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1955); Pierre Géal, La naissance des musées d’art en Espagne: XVIIIe-XIXe siècles (Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 2005); Selma Holo, Beyond the Prado: Museums and Identity in Democratic Spain (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999); Tomás-Ramón Fernández, Historia institucional del Museo del Prado (Madrid: Fundación Alfonso Martín Escudero, 2019); and Andrew Schultz, “Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid: Absolutism and Nationalism in Early 19th-Century Madrid” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th and Early 19th-Century Europe, ed. Carole Paul (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012), 237–59.

[2] In particular, she uses the work of Peter Burke, although the relevant work of others such as John Urry seems to be absent. See Peter Burke, “Viewpoint: The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe,” Past and Present 146, no. 1 (1995): 136–50; and John Urry, The Tourist Gaze, 2nd ed. (London: Sage Publications, 2002).

[3] Here we are reminded of the way that Thomas Crow or Frances Borzello, among others, have described the increasingly wide makeup and clash of a public in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century exhibition spaces. See Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); and Frances Borzello, Civilizing Caliban. The Misuse of Art 1875–1980 (London and New York: Routledge, 1987).

[4] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995); and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[5] She uses this phrase found in Michele Faulkner, Vicente Sánchez-Biosca, and Paul Julian Smith, “Cinema, Popular Entertainment, Literature, and Television,” in A Companion to Spanish Cinema, eds. Jo Labanyi and Tatjana Pavlovic, 5th ed. (London: Blackwell, 2013), 489–520.