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The private pleasures of kings: on nudes from the Prado at the Clark Art Institute

The Spanish Catholic Church tried to curb images of nudity, but artists and patrons did not always oblige

Titian rarely painted a figure as magnificent as the goddess of love in Venus with an Organist and Cupid (around 1555). Visitors to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, will come to understand why Spanish kings loved Venetian art, and will have the chance to see more than the subjects of Spain saw of their rulers’ art collections in the 17th and 18th centuries.

They’ll see paintings, hardly scandalous now, that Philip II (reign 1556-98) and Philip IV (reign 1621-40) stored away in hiding places, lest the Inquisition accuse them of inciting anyone to sexual misdeeds. In the 28 paintings that are on loan from the Prado in Madrid, visitors will also see more female nudity than anyone saw in Spain in those days. This is the best show this summer in New England.

The exhibition’s title—Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado—points to the obvious marketing angle of these works acquired by the Spanish crown, which was the foremost art buyer of the time. If purchasing paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and others reflected the power that Spanish kings held over the market, possessing those works in Spain also exposed the relative weakness of those kings in their relations with the Spanish church, which condemned female nudity (and had reservations about male nudity).

The solution, which is the backstory of this exhibition, was the sala reservada, described by the Prado curator Javier Portus as “part of a long and virtually unbroken tradition of grouping and segregating paintings simply because of their nudity and erotic content.”

In this case, it was the King of Spain who segregated that work, because the Catholic Church, as Portus explains in a detailed catalog essay, had a special interest in targeting erotic pictures. “While in other locales, nude paintings were sequestered on special occasions, access to those paintings was restricted, and the works at times even destroyed,” he writes, “never was the practice upheld with such consistency as in Spain.”

Much of that art eventually made it to the Prado (founded in 1819), although the struggle with the church continued, drawing in Francisco Goya for the unashamed nudity of his Majas. (Something tells me that there’s a film here.)

Among the 28 Prado loans to the Clark, some pictures are more reminders of the Prado’s greatness than they are revelations. In Titian’s Venus with an Organist and Cupid, the young male musician turns away from his keyboard to look directly at the goddess’s genitals, suggesting where a man’s priorities might be—for better or worse—when confronted with such beauty. A celebration of erotic attraction, the now-famous picture was unknown to the public until 1626, when a visiting Italian connoisseur (part of a cardinal’s entourage) wrote of seeing it in what he called “the last room of the vaults” at the Alcazar Palace in Madrid.

In Lady Revealing Her Breast by Tintoretto (1580-90), another Prado stalwart, a Venetian courtesan opens her dress to the viewer, evidence that Venice was more tolerant (perhaps even encouraging) than Madrid in showing female beauty. There is a candor in this courtesan’s gesture, yet the picture is ambiguous. Is she being brazen, or is there something more intimate to be understood? What’s certain is that, at his best moments, Tintoretto could be as inspiring as Titian in the painting of human skin.

Other pictures lift a curtain from some of the Prado’s secrets. Guercino’s sublime Susannah and the Elders of 1617 depicts the biblical scene of intrigue and blackmail with the innocent Susannah in tones of white marble, oblivious to the excitement of two spying judges who would later conspire to blackmail her. The expressions of the aroused men are as comic as they are iconic. The painting is making a clear moral statement about exploitation—although the clerics in Madrid would not have thought so.

The haunting Lot and His Daughters by Francesco Furini (1643) retells another biblical story, locking the body of the drunken Lot between the figures of his two nude offspring. The gauzy scene that makes you feel his temptation is exactly what the Spanish Church wanted to hide from its faithful. The kings complied. Unsettling, the picture has subtle radiance.

In three paintings, all in anguish, of Saint Sebastian, by Guido Reni (1617-19), Jusepe de Ribera (1636) and Juan Carreno (1656), we see variations on a male saint who is never depicted clothed. A closer look will show how the figure’s minimal draping was augmented to meet the demands of the church.

The Prado loans are a coup for Williamstown, thanks partly to a show of work by Renoir, loaned from the Clark, which was a hit when it went to Impressionist-poor Madrid. It’s an encouraging partnership—far better than that between the Spanish monarchy and the Church back then.

Splendor, Myth and Vision is an escape from the sala reservada that the Prado’s celebration of pleasure deserves. For those who believe, out of concern for balance, that the legacy of the Inquisition merits its due, El Greco’s portrait (clothed) of a notorious cleric who fought the display of erotic imagery, Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino (1609), can be found at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

David D’Arcy is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper

Splendor, Myth and Vision; Nudes from the Prado, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, until 10 October