MADRID — AN American visitor is apt to be pleasantly surprised when he enters Room 29 of the Thyssen-Bornemisza's 19th-century painting collection.
Dominating one wall is "Fishing Party on Long Island Sound off New Rochelle," by American painter James Goodwyn Clonney. The delightful scene of a lazy afternoon amid natural beauty exudes the idealism and innocence that typified that century's North American painters.
Coming upon the picture - and the many others that surround it, including works by Frederic Church, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Cole, and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of a black woman presumed to be George Washington's cook - can have the effect of an awakening not only because it follows rooms of stunning European painting of very different feeling and impact. The surprise comes from the fact that the viewer is seeing this distinctly American vision of 19th-century romanticism in Europe.
"I don't know of any other European museum with such a large and complete collection of American 19th-century painting," says Tomas Llorens, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum's chief curator. "What that says is that internationalism and a desire to bring together the best from everywhere were very much at the center of this project."
That project is the renowned art collection assembled in this century by two generations of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family. Earlier this month the Spanish government announced that it had completed negotiations to purchase the collection - considered second only to that of England's Queen Elizabeth among private collections. Valued by Sotheby's in 1990 at $1.7 billion, Spain is to pay $350 million for 775 works spanning 700 years of Western art - certainly one of the great art coups of all time.
The strength of the early-American painting is just one of the elements that gives the Thyssen collection its completeness and makes it a veritable survey of Western painting: from the religious themes of Italian and Dutch medieval works and an astounding Renaissance portrait gallery to the 20th-century Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein.
Together they make a priceless addition to the Spanish capital's arts offering.
In what was originally a long-term loan, the Thyssen collection has since October taken up residence on Madrid's Paseo del Prado in the Villahermosa Palace, an early 19th-century building completely renovated to house the Thyssen works. The Thyssen, as it is simply called, joins two other museums to form a compact triangle: the immense Prado museum right across a leafy boulevard and the 1990 Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art just a few blocks south. The trio gives the Spanish capital one of the worl d's richest art centers.
"After Paris, there is no place now that has a richer offering to show the history of art," Mr. Llorens says. "With the three museums, it's a unique concentration."
The prospect of joining and indeed augmenting this "critical mass of art," as Llorens calls it, was one of the central factors that weighed in favor of Madrid as the Thyssen-Bornemisza family considered sites for exhibiting its collection.
The family wanted to make the bulk of the collection publicly available but had at its disposal only a villa in Lugano, Switzerland, which was deemed insufficient to display the large number of works. So in 1987, the family began looking for a suitable exhibition site.
Immediately the wooing game was on. In addition to a proposal from London, the German government presented a particularly generous plan for housing the collection in Bonn, and the Getty Foundation - which offered $3.5 billion for the collection - designed part of its new museum in Los Angeles with the Thyssen works in mind.
But two factors worked in Spain's favor: the Spanish government's offer of the attractive and enviably located Villahermosa Palace, plus a commitment to spend more than $40 million renovating it for the collection; and the fact that the collection's owner, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, is married to a Spaniard intent on seeing the collection find a home in her country.
There had been some concerns in government circles about the way the public would respond to the collection's purchase when Spain is experiencing an economic downturn - some official sources claim the announcement was actually put off until after national elections earlier this month.
But when the acquisition was announced June 18, the Madrid daily El Mundo proclaimed ecstatically, "For the eyes of all, and for always." Besides, the Spanish public had already demonstrated its enthusiasm for the museum by flooding through its turnstiles, alongside foreign tourists, in the museum's first nine months. "We're already the second most visited museum of Spain," museum spokeswoman Juby Bustamante says.
Part of the explanation is that the Thyssen is such a pleasant place to get an education in art history. Redesigned by renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, professor of architecture in Spain and at Harvard, the Villahermosa interior has become three floors of soft Mediterranean-orange galleries, brightened by natural light diffused through typically southern European shutters.
If, as Llorens notes, the average visitor is spending over 90 minutes at the Thyssen, compared to 45 minutes at most museums, the sustaining effect of what Mr. Moneo calls "silent architecture" is undoubtedly a factor.
The color, lighting, and smooth flow from gallery to gallery help the visitor forget his feet as he stands before Hubert van Eyck, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Bartolome Murillo, Jacob van Ruisdael, Antoine Watteau, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Salvador Dali.
"Just the exercise of distributing and hanging 800 works that form a first-rate history of art was an incredible privilege," Llorens says. After walking through the Thyssen, the visitor understands what he means.