Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza was one of the heirs to the great Thyssen steel fortune and is a canny capitalist in his own right. (The Thyssen company was merged into the Krupp industrial empire in 1999.) The Baron is also a world class art collector who amassed a collection of Old Master paintings and modern works considered to be second among private art collections only to that of the British monarchy. A Swiss citizen, the Baron’s collection was housed for many years in Lugano, Switzerland where his Villa Favorita is well known to the international social set.
Perhaps due to the Spanish origins of his fifth wife, Carmen "Tita" Cevera, a former beauty queen, nearly 800 paintings from his collection were loaned to Spain for a decade and are now permanently located in the Villahermosa Palace in Madrid. A grand neoclassical structure from the early 19th century, the palacio was renovated to house the collection at a cost to the Spanish government of some $45 million. (100 additional works are exhibited in Barcelona.)
In sleek and elegant rooms, painted a smart salmon color coordinated with the marble floors, the works are organized chronologically–and not divided by nationality–thus allowing a broad sense of historical developments in art with an international sweep. The earliest works begin on the top floor–from Italian primitives into the Renaissance and the early Baroque. The immediacy of works like Memlings’s 1485 "Young Man at Prayer" and Ghirlandaio’s 1488 "Portrait of Giovanna Tomabuoni" bridge the centuries between these very real people and ourselves. Tomabuoni is presented in a conventionally idealized style, but her elaborately worked brocade gown, her curls, her jewels, and her pregnancy, along with the objects alluding to her devoutness, all combine to effectively communicate the essence of this virtuous aristocrat. Only history tells us, however, that the beauteous Giovanna will die in childbirth from the very pregnancy here depicted.
Almost a century later, Holbein records the imperiousness of King Henry VIII in England while Titian memorializes the wisdom of the Doge of Venice. At the turn of the 17th century, all within a few years of one another, El Greco offers a masterpiece of mannerism in his "Annunciation," Caravaggio’s innovation creates strong emotional impact in his theatrical portrayal of Saint Catherine, and Brueghel, in "Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee," compresses intriguingly detailed story-telling and painterly genius in a very small canvas that offers more fascination than three hours of Cecile B. DeMille.
Down a flight is a richness of Dutch realist paintings (Hals’ buoyant "Fisherman Playing the Violin," elegant renderings of Dutch interiors and still lifes), as well as Impressionist (Pisarro’s cityscape showing the effect of rain on the Rue St. Honore, a light and charming Berthe Morisot, plus Monet, Bonnnard, Degas–fine representations of all), post-Impressionist (excellent examples of Van Gogh and Gauguin), 19th century American painting (unusual in Europe), and German Expressionism. Sargent’s bigger-than-life-sized 1904 portrait of Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland reveals a beautiful woman of great self-confidence, elegantly gowned, bare-shouldered, a hint of a smile suggesting a sense of humor. Nearby, another Sargent work more modestly depicts Mrs. Charles Russell, a more ordinary sort of woman whose hooded eyes suggest a deep sadness. She leans on a table as if for support. The contrast with the Duchess could not be more telling.
The ground floor shows works of the twentieth century including a generous number of works by American artists. While it may be no surprise to see a stunning Hopper or two, or an important Rauschenberg, it is gratifying to find Lionel Feninger and Ben Shahn in this illustrious company as well.
There is no way that the Thyssen collection could be adequately summarized in a short overview. Our intent is to give just a hint of the glories offered by this extraordinary gift to the public of a collection of such scope and depth. Don’t think for a moment that you will be satisfied with what you can see and absorb in a few hours. This is a treasure chest from which to select jewels to cherish over many visits.