Isolated by its rugged, mountainous terrain, Spain relied on foreign contacts to keep abreast of new artistic developments. Although compositions and techniques might derive from Netherlandish or Italian sources, however, Spanish art retained an emotional intensity and religious fervor all its own.
The earliest Spanish paintings in the National Gallery date from the age of the devoutly pious Ferdinand and Isabella, who reigned from 1474 until 1504, imposing religious unity over the varied provinces of the Iberian peninsula as a means of achieving political hegemony. The Marriage at Cana, one of several works in the Gallery's collection that reflect Isabella's preference for devotional subjects painted in the Flemish style, is of historic as well as aesthetic interest; it not only represents a biblical wedding, but may also document two contemporary marriages that brought Spain into the mainstream of European history by establishing lasting ties between the Spanish royal house and the Habsburgs of Austria.
Spain's preoccupation with spiritual matters remained largely undiluted by the new humanistic ideas of the Italian Renaissance. In the wake of the religious division caused by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, the Catholic church initiated the Counter-reformation, setting strict guidelines for artists, which required that they express the church's dogma vividly in order to stir emotions and encourage piety and devotion. The spatial and figural distortions and flickering lights and darks of the Greek-born artist El Greco expressed the life of the spirit.
The seventeenth century's interest in the material world fostered a new realism in painting and saw the introduction of secular subjects such as still life and genre scenes. Dominated by such masters as Juan van der Hamen y León, Francisco de Zurbarán, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Juan de Valdés Leal, and, above all, Diego Velázquez, the century has since been thought of as a golden age of Spanish painting.
In the eighteenth century, the Bourbons who succeeded the Habsburgs on the Spanish throne commissioned foreign artists, among them Anton Raphael Mengs and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, to decorate their palaces. The first native painter of genius since Velázquez was Francisco de Goya, whose innovations anticipated much of the artistic exploration of the nineteenth century.