With over 50 museums in Madrid, you may not have enough time to visit them all. Are you wondering which museum is a must-see during your stay in Madrid? Are you short on time but want to discover one of the most extraordinary art collections in Spain?
Whether you have a layover in Madrid, a few days, or a longer stay there is time to see all the Thyssen Bornemisza highlights. During my two-week trip to Spain, I spent several days exploring museums in the Golden Triangle of Art in Madrid including one memorable afternoon visiting the Thyssen Bornemisza. My usual getaway to a Banff museum in the Canadian Rockies includes art only from the 20th century so the varied collection at the Thyssen Bornemisza was ancient and spectacular in comparison.
The Thyssen Bornemisza National Museum is home to an array of artwork from the Middle Ages to this century and the diversity and variety are unparalleled. Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza includes European and American art from major periods ranging from the Renaissance and Impressionism to Pop Art. This is the place to go to view paintings by artists with a wide range of styles including Van Gogh, Renoir, Dalí, Degas, Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, and van Eyck.
There are so many great works it was really challenging to pick only a few highlights, but I’ve narrowed it down to 13 must-see masterpieces from the Thyssen collection that I would recommend.
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Golden Triangle of Art in Madrid
The Thyssen Bornemisza National Museum is one of Spain’s most important and famous museums and is part of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art along the Paseo del Prado (Art Walk). Along with the Prado Museum and the Reino Sofia Museums, these three institutions combined to form one of the world’s finest collections of art.
The Prado Museum is massive and houses the Spanish Royal Art Collection, along with European artwork from the 16th to 19th centuries with masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, Titan and Bosch. The Reino Sofia has an extensive collection of contemporary paintings with the best collection of art by Picasso, Dalí and Miró. Both the Prado and Reino Sofia are worth a visit and if you have time to visit all three I would recommend purchasing a Paseo del Arte pass which provides a 20% discount on the price of entrance to all three museums.
The Thyssen Bornemisza Museum is less crowded than the Prado and because it is not enormous like the Reino or Prado it is ideal for visitors with limited time. In one afternoon, it is possible to admire over 1000 famous paintings from Europe and the Americas, with a varied range of periods and artistic styles, from the 13th to the late 20th century.
One of the unique features of the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum is the collection of 19th-century American paintings that are not found anywhere else in Europe. The Thyssen Bornemisza is also known for its extensive collection of Italian primitives, Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Russian Constructivism.
The motto of the Thyssen Bornemisza is “Everyone’s Museum” and its non-pretentious, open, and energetic atmosphere has attracted over 20 million visitors. The building is spacious and modern and the Thyssen hosts numerous events and programs.
The Thyssen is known for its open-air concerts, high-quality temporary exhibitions, educational programs and online courses, lectures, international research projects, and themed guided visits. Everyone is welcome to visit, and free entry is offered to children, youth, teachers, the disabled, the unemployed, and everyone else on Monday afternoons.
History of the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum
The origin of the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum can be traced to three generations of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family. August Thyssen, a German industrialist, began commissioning pieces in the late 19th century for his private collection.
Major pieces were added from the 1920’s to 1947, by August’s third son, Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza including Jan van Eyck’s “The Annunciation” and Caravaggio’s “Saint Catherine of Alexandria.”
When Heinrich passed away in 1947 the art collection was significantly expanded by his youngest son Baron Hans Heinrich and later by Hans Heinrich’s fifth wife Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza (nee Cevera). Hans Heinrich and his father had originally accumulated a large collection of old master paintings. Hans Heinrich and Carmen diversified the collection with avant-garde styles and modern art.
As the art collection grew the family began to share their impressive pieces with private guests at their estate called Villa Favorita in Lugano, Switzerland. The Villa Favorita gallery eventually opened to the public but in time the space was no longer large enough as new pieces were added.
Hans’ wife Carmen was Spanish, and the Spanish government offered the Madrid Villahermosa Palace, right across the street from the Prado Museum, to hold his collection. In 1992, over 770 pieces of art were loaned to Spain and exhibited in the newly renovated museum. In 1993 the artwork was purchased by the Spanish state for 350 million dollars.
Hans Heinrich passed away in 2002 and left most of his paintings to Carmen. Carmen’s collection includes Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, as well as avant-garde movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Surrealism. Carmen has continued to support the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum by lending paintings from her personal collection
1.“The Annunciation Diptych” by Jan van Eyck (1439)
A set of three religious panels was created by the Dutch artist Jan van Eyck but unfortunately, only the left wing exists today with the Archangel Gabriel.
van Eyck created over a hundred religious paintings and used a trompe-l’œil effect for The Annunciation Diptych at the Thyssen Bornemisza which makes the figures closely resemble those of sculptures.
The level of detail in this piece resulted in extremely realistic and lifelike portraits of Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary.
2. “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1598)
The Italian painter Caravaggio was an influential artist of the Baroque style under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte.
The woman portrayed as Saint Catherine, was Fillide Melandroni, a frequent model for Caravaggio whom he also had a romantic relationship with. The portrait depicts St. Catherine and the execution wheel that was to be used to torture and bludgeon her because she refused to renounce her Christian beliefs.
The legend is that the wheel miraculously broke when she touched it.
3. “Venus and Cupid” by Peter Paul Rubens (1606-1611)
The painting of Venus and Cupid was created by influential Baroque Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. He was known for his masterful use of colors and skill at depicting textures.
Rubens painted many historical scenes including religious and mythological subjects. This scene of Venus looking into a mirror held by Cupid is a copy of the original painting by Titian.
4. “Self-portrait wearing a hat and two chains” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1642)
Rembrandt was a Dutch artist who lived during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. He created dozens of self-portraits over his career and the self-portrait at the Thyssen of him wearing a hat and two chains is considered one of his finest.
His art is distinguished by his use of light and shadow and his ability to capture his mood and state of mind in each piece.
5. “Woman with a Parasol in the Garden” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875)
Renoir was a French artist and a leading painter in the Impressionist style. Renoir was known as a colorist who had expertise in the reflection of light and shadow without the contours of the form or subject.
He created this painting of a man and a woman in a long dress with a parasol believed to be walking in the garden outside his new studio in Montmartre.
6. “Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green)” by Edgar Degas (1877-79)
Edgar Degas was a French Impressionist artist who created oil paintings and pastels like this one. He did not paint landscapes, rejected the label of impressionist, and preferred to be called a Realist.
Degas was particularly skilled at depicting movement, and he created a number of paintings of ballet dancers as well as other figures in motion.
7. “Les Vessenots en Auvers” by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)
Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist artist who was known for his bold colors, and dramatic and animated brushwork. Van Gogh created this painting of cottages and the surrounding landscape near the end of his life after he moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-Sur-Oise.
He is also remembered for his mental health struggles and the somber tone of many of his paintings which is believed to reflect his own feelings of melancholy and loneliness.
8. “Portrait of Millicent Duchess of Sutherland” by John Singer Sargent (1904)
John Singer Sargent was an American painter who was born in Florence to American parents. He spent most of his life in various locations across Europe and created thousands of oil paintings, watercolors, sketches, and charcoal drawings.
He was known internationally as the leading portrait artist of his generation. Many of his portraits, like this one, were of famous figures. The painting is of the Duchess of Sutherland who was a well-known, progressive, society figure in London.
9. “Portrait of a Harlequin with a Mirror” by Pablo Picasso (1923)
Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential Spanish artists of the 20th century. He spent most of his adult life in France and was known for co-founding the Cubist movement and for the wide variety of artistic styles he used.
This painting was a more classical style and is a blend of the costume of an acrobat, the hat of Harlequin, and the face of Pierrot, a stock character of pantomime and commedia dell’arte.
10. “New York Street with Moon” by Georgia O’Keefe (1925)
George O’Keefe was an American artist known as the “Mother of Modernism”. She was known for her independent spirit and the innovative and unique artistic style of her paintings.
After her move to a 30th-floor apartment in New York, she began a series of Manhattan skyline and skyscraper paintings using oil on canvas including this painting of a haunting New York street at night with the moon in clouds in the background.
11. “Hotel Room” by Edward Hopper (1931)
Edward Hopper was an American artist who painted commonplace subjects with an overarching theme of loneliness in big cities. Hopper’s version of Realism has had a significant influence on pop culture. His paintings inspire the viewer to find hidden meanings and interpret the emotions and thoughts of his subject.
The woman in the Hotel Room was his wife and fellow artist Josephine Verstille Nivison. She has removed her dress and appears to be melancholy, sitting on the edge of a bed in a hotel room, lost in thought and looking at a paper in her hands.
12. “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Waking” Salvador Dalí (1944)
Salvador Dalí was a Spanish artist and known as an essential figure in Surrealism. His art is controversial, thought provoking, and full of symbolism and exaggerated, fanciful imagery. Dalí’s method was influenced by psychoanalysis and Freud’s theories on the interpretation of dreams and associated images.
His painting of a Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee pictured his wife, Gala, lying naked on a stone platform in water. On one side of her body is a floating pomegranate and on the other side two leaping tigers are ready to pounce on her body. One of the tigers is protruding from a fish mouth that is coming from another large pomegranate. Above an elephant with long skinny legs is in the background.
13.“Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror” by Francis Bacon (1968)
Francis Bacon was an Irish-born British painter of contemporary art known for his focus on the human form and his disturbing, distorted, and bleak imagery.
This painting of his lover George Dyer is a double portrait with a distorted face looking into a mirror reflecting a face with two halves. George Dyer committed suicide a few years after this was painted and this piece reflects his inner turmoil.
Guide to visiting the Thyssen Bornemisza National Museum
Location: Villahermosa Palace, Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid, Spain
Hours: Mondays from 12pm to 4pm and from Tuesday to Sunday between 10am to 7pm
Time to visit: It typically takes 2-3 hours to visit the museum
Admission tickets: Full-access general admission tickets (€13) and tickets with an audio guide (€18) can be reserved online on the Thyssen website, in person, or by phone. Purchase of advance tickets is highly recommended particularly during peak periods like weekends.
Reduced or free entry is available:
- Reduced fees are offered for visitors over 65 and pensioners, students, and members of associations related to Hosteling International.
- Free admission for everyone each Monday from 12pm to 4pm.
- Free admission (proof required) for children and young people under 18, teachers (preferably with ITIC Card), citizens with disability (equal or above 33%), unemployed, youth card holders, or friends of the museum.
The Paseo del Art pass allows the holder to visit the permanent collection of the Thyssen Museum as well as one visit to the Prado and the Reina Sofía museums. The pass is valid for one visit to each museum within one year from the date of purchase.
One-hour guided tours are offered in Spanish or English on weekends and public holidays for an extra fee. An English guided tour called “Masterpieces of the Museum” provides details about the life and work of the artists, their influences and motivation, and why they are so famous. Pre-book tours at the ticket office or online.
Layout of the museum:
The Thyssen Bornemisza museum is organized chronologically, and many people tour the museum by starting on the top floor and working their way down.
The top floor (Level 2) exhibits medieval art, including 13th and 14th-century Italian, German, and Flemish religious paintings and panel paintings. Don’t miss rooms 19 to 21 with masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Dyck.
The first floor (Level 1) displays 19th-century French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Pissarro Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh.
In rooms A to H is the private collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, which she loaned to the museum, and includes the work of Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir.
The ground floor includes contemporary 20th-century art, Expressionist, and Pop art, including works by Pablo Picasso, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, and Salvador Dalí.
If you are looking for other things to do during your visit to the Thyssen Bornemisza I would suggest walking on the beautiful grounds of El Retiro Park. The park is located near the Prado Museum and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Isa also has some great recommendations for things to do in Madrid based on her experience visiting the city.
If you would like to stay in a prime location near the Golden Triangle of Art I would recommend the following accommodation:
Final Thoughts: Thyssen Bornemisza highlights:
Trust me, you won’t be disappointed by a whirlwind tour through the Thyssen Bornemisza collection during your next visit to Madrid and its Golden Triangle of Art.
Whether you’re an art buff or just casually into it, the Thyssen Bornemisza museum has got a bit of everything, and then some. From the Renaissance wonders to the mind-bending 20th-century Surrealist creations, you can travel through history in just a few short hours.
- What art is at the Thyssen?
A: The Thyssen features over 1000 famous paintings from Europe and the Americas, with a varied range of periods and artistic styles, from the 13th to the late 20th century.
- What paintings are at the Thyssen?
A: Famous paintings at the Thyssen include Van Gogh’s Les Vessenots in Auvers, Caravaggio’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Hopper’s Hotel Room, and The Annunciation” by Jan van Eyck Diptych.
- What is the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum known for?
A: The museum is known for its diversity of paintings from Europe and the Americas, with a varied range of periods and artistic styles, from the 13th to the late 20th century. Thyssen Bornemisza Museum has a collection of 19th-century American paintings that are not found anywhere else in Europe. It is also known for its extensive collection of Italian primitives, Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Russian Constructivism.
- Is the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum worth it?
A: Yes, the Thyssen Bornemisza is one of Spain’s most important and famous museums and is part of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art along the Paseo del Prado. In a few short hours, for a modest fee, you can see a wide range of artwork by world-renowned artists.
- What is the Thyssen Bornemisza museum entrance free?
A: Full access general admission tickets are €13 plus €5 for an audio guide. Free admission is available on Mondays and daily discounts may apply for some visitors.
- How much time do you need at the Thyssen Museum?
A: Most people will complete their visit within 2-3 hours.
Written by Jen Mazer, Author of Illuminated Experiences Blog
Jen is the author of the Illuminated Experiences travel blog which offers tailored content for midlife travellers seeking adventure and new experiences. She lives in Calgary and has been exploring the Canadian Rocky Mountains for over 30 years. An avid world traveler, she has visited museums throughout Europe and is always on the lookout for her next exciting destination.