Sunday, 20 September 2009





For anyone who loves painting, going to the Velazquez exhibition that has just opened in London is equivalent to having a religious experience. It makes you feel weak at the knees and robs you of any critical faculties you might otherwise possess. You have no doubt that you have been brought into the presence of a supreme painter - the painter of painters.


I use the word ‘painter’ rather than the less specific ‘artist’ because Velazquez’s work is so intimately linked to the physical substances he uses ñ much more so than is the case with the other great visual creators of the Western tradition: Jan van Eyck, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo. Not even Titian can fully rival him in this respect, though some of the late works come close. The London National Gallery has cunningly hung its great late Titian of Diana and Actaeon so that you see it on your way in to the Velasquez show.


Velazquez, nevertheless, is a man of his time, and an artist from a very specific milieu. Or, rather, from two contrasting milieux: first, that of the streets of Seville, then that of the cloistered Spanish court.


English collections are particularly rich in early works by Velazquez, and they are well represented in this show, from both British and non-British sources. There are devotional pictures, such as the Immaculate Conception and The Virgin and Child with the Magi [the latter lent by the Prado], but the majority of the paintings in the first room are low-life scenes. These belong to a tradition that was then in the process of establishing itself throughout Europe ñ that of making paintings where humble incidents and humble people were shown on the scale of life. Caravaggio, at the beginning of his career, produced work of this sort, and so did his rival Annibale Carracci, whose huge realist canvas of A Butcherís Shop can now be seen at Christchurch, Oxford. The young Velazquez cannot have seen original works by these revolutionary Italian painters, but the tendency, in one form or another, existed even earlier in other countries and became particularly influential in the Netherlands in the closing years of the 16th century. The Low Countries exported printed images in great quantities, both to Spain and to the Spanish Indies, and Velazquez was certainly familiar with engravings reproducing paintings of this sort by Pieter Aertsen [1508-1575], a Dutch artist a generation older than himself, and by Aertsenís nephew Joachim Beuckelaar [1533-1574]. Aertsen and Beuckelaar often included small devotional incidents, such as Christ at the Supper of Emmaus, in the background of what were primarily robust genre scenes. Following their example, Velazquez sometimes did the same.


In these early paintings Velazquez was still struggling to find himself, and some have obvious flaws, particularly in their slightly uncertain handing of space. What was already astonishing was the artist’s skill in reproducing appearances - for example, the two fried eggs just coagulating in a shallow earthenware dish,, which appear in An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, which now belongs to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.


The culminating work of this phase is The Water Seller of Seville looted by Wellington’s troops from Joseph Bonaparte’s abandoned carriage after the battle of Vitoria and afterwards presented to the Duke by a grateful Spanish government. The tight pyramidal composition, with the water seller handing a glass full of the precious liquid to a young boy, has nothing overtly religious about it, but its atmosphere is nevertheless hushed and sacramental. We cannot say precisely what the painting means, but we know, nevertheless, that it is a statement about the sacredness of ordinary things. The original owner of the painting was a Canon of Seville Cathedral, who afterwards moved to Madrid to preside over the royal chapel. When he died in 1627, it was Velazquez who was called in to value his collection. Listing the painting simply as “a picture of a water seller, by the hand of Diego Velazquez,” he gave it the highest value among the works the collector had owned.


In 1623 Velazquez, too, moved to Madrid, thanks to the patronage of a fellow Sevillian - Philip IV’s chief minister and favorite, the Count of Olivares. Named painter to the king, he began to move up a ladder of palace appointments, becoming usher to the royal chamber in 1627, Assistant in the Wardrobe in 1636, and Assistant in the Privy Chamber in 1643. In 1659, despite his comparatively humble birth [he was the son of a notary], he was admitted to the Order of Santiago.


The whole of Velazquez’s later career, with the exception of his two visits to Italy, one from 1629 to 1631, the other from 1648 to 1651, was spent at court, generally in close propinquity to the king, who clearly valued him highly. For example, Velazquez was absent when a heir to the throne, the Infante Baltasar Carlos, was born in 1629, and Philip IV did not want anyone else to paint his son until Velazquez returned. Later, there was a gap in his sequence of portraits of the king himself, because Philip did not wish anyone to see how much the troubles of the latter part of his reign had aged him.


As the catalogue of the exhibition points out, there is a noticeable difference between the likenesses that Velazquez made of members of the Spanish royal house, even children, and those he made of other sitters, however eminent. The latter are much more informal, much more direct in their exploration of character. This applies even to the portrait of a semi-royal personage, the Duke of Modena, painted when he was on a visit to Madrid. As the cataloguer remarks “the duke looks both alert and mistrustful, perhaps suggesting his uneasiness at the Spanish court” [which did not regard him as genuinely royal, but nevertheless politely treated him as such].


One of the fascinating things about the exhibition is the frequent unexpectedness of its subject matter. The other great Spanish artists of the Golden Age are known chiefly for the religious paintings. Velazquez painted very few, and when he did, the topic is often unusual - as it is, for example, in the National Gallery’s Christ after the Flagellation, Contemplated by the Christian Soul, with its broken, almost nude, exhausted figure, pulling feebly against the rope that still binds its hands.


When Velazquez went to Italy for the first time, it was with the desire to measure himself against the great Italian painters of mythologies. One of his contributions to this tradition is Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, borrowed from the Prado. Yet this is really a very unconventional presentation of classical myth. The scene in the forge is completely down to earth - these are ordinary working men, practicing a trade, like Annibale Carracciís group of butchers. The figure of Apollo, a primly admonitory adolescent wearing a wreath and draped in an ample robe, is an apparition from another, self-consciously superior realm. The painting is suffused with a sense of irony. Here is one god tattling to another about the infidelity of his wife. A wonderfully organized composition of six figures, all linked in a rhythm that carries the eye securely across the whole surface of the canvas, is devoted to deflating any ideas one may have about the grandeur of the deities of Olympus.


This spirit of irony is even more pronounced in the single figure of Mars, shown as a disconsolate middle-aged soldier. The sarcastic intent of the painting becomes even more obvious when one notes that the pose is based on a famous Greco-Roman sculpture of a handsomer and far more youthful version of the god, the so-called Ludovisi Mars, now in Palazzo Altemps in Rome.


Some details of the Mars, especially the shield and other martial accoutrements placed at the god’s feet, show Velazquez’s unparalleled ability to conjure up appearances with a few rapid marks of the brush. His contemporaries complained that he was a slow worker but, if this was the case, much of his time in the studio must have been spent in contemplation.


The 17th century was the period in which artists learned to experiment with the brush. In this connection one thinks of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, as well as of Velazquez. Where Velazquez surpassed these two, and still surpasses all others, was in his ability to produce a coherent image from seemingly random strokes. A celebrated example is the ‘Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver’ that belongs to the National Gallery. Here the elaborate embroidery of the costume is rendered in a series of rapid dots and dashes that conjure up the glittering of metal thread without offering any kind of literal rendition of the pattern. Velazquez never denies that paint is paint ñ he offers a kind of alchemy: paint is still paint, but it is also, simultaneously, something transformative, that gives us a better grasp of physical appearances than we could hope to achieve unaided. Velazquez’s abilities in this respect had an enormous impact on later artists, in particular on Manet. If Manet was the father of the Impressionism Movement - which, in turn, was the real beginning of the Modernist spirit in art - then Velazquez was its grandfather. He left no direct followers when he died; his art is too individual for that. But he subtly influenced some of the most original art that came after him. After Velazquez the art of painting could never be the same.



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