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Master of the Natural

Velázquez

an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, October 18, 2006– January 21, 2007

Velázquez

Catalog of the exhibition by Dawson W. Carr, with essays by Xavier Bray, John H. Elliott, Larry Keith, and Javier Portús
London: National Gallery Company, 256 pp., $60.00 (distributed in the US by Yale University Press); £19.95 (paper; available from the National Gallery)

In an alcove of the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, Diego de Silva y Velázquez’s oil portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) shares the intimate space with a bust of the same pope by Gianlorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest sculptors of all time (see illustrations on page 55). Bernini’s bust is a tour de force of virtuosity, from Innocent’s wispy beard to the unbuttoned button on his short cape (mozzetta), a magnificent image of a man otherwise renowned for his astonishing ugliness. But anyone who takes time to look at the Bernini portrait crosses the steely-eyed stare of Velázquez’s painted pope, peering at his viewers as suspiciously, and as shrewdly, as he once peered across his throne room at the Spanish painter.

Bernini’s Innocent, displaying a stunning repertory of sculptural special effects, is plausibly the man who fell victim to the ruthless scheming of his sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia Maidalchini (whose terrifying marble visage dominates another section of the same gallery). Velázquez’s scowling Innocent, on the other hand, for all his red satin and shimmering white lace, looks like the man who in 1648 condemned the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, as “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time,” and a year later destroyed the Italian city of Castro, which had humiliatingly defeated his predecessor in battle.

Both Innocents, the pawn and the ruler, are equally real, and the two artists responded to the man’s complex personality according to their own natures. Bernini knew from experience that Donna Olimpia dictated the Pope’s artistic commissions, and he sculpted Innocent for her as much as for the pontiff, showing him, cannily, as a man not quite in charge of himself. Velázquez, on the other hand, owed Donna Olimpia nothing; he had been court painter to the King of Spain for a quarter-century, and he portrayed Innocent as he had portrayed Philip IV and Philip’s favorite, the Count-Duke of Olivares, by fixing his attention on an aura of authority that came from deep within the Pope himself. Contemporaries would have judged these two portraits on their likeness to life. By that standard, despite the trademark sketchiness of Velázquez’s brushwork and the meticulous precision of Bernini’s detailing, there is no contest between the two images; the painted Innocent is so disconcertingly alive that we can almost forget that he died in 1655.

In our own time, Velázquez is no less captivating for the bold abstraction of his surfaces, and for his penetrating awareness of painting as an act. Innocent’s unsparing fish-eye may once have been directed above all at the Spanish visitor, whose portrait the Pope was finding “too lifelike,” but Velázquez has transformed it into a fish-eye reserved for everyone who ever crosses the pontiff’s path. He achieves the effect in part by catching the old man’s wary expression in high resolution, along with Innocent’s left hand, which clutches a dispatch; hand and eyes thus work together to elevate mistrust of a too-perceptive artist into the habitual skepticism of a seasoned statesman. Innocent’s right hand, like his crimson mozzetta, his starched lace robe, and the golden finials of his throne, recedes slightly out of focus, resolving into slashes and daubs of pure paint, yet at the same time these passages mimic the fuzziness of our own peripheral vision. We are forced to see Innocent from the vantage Velázquez has chosen for us. No wonder the modern painter Francis Bacon became obsessed with this portrait; with all its various kinds of superlative artistry, it has become, in its own way, an entire treatise on portraiture, and by extension on art itself.

For its grand show on Velázquez—surprisingly, the first on British soil—the National Gallery in London has gathered forty-six paintings from every stage of the painter’s career, including a bust-length portrait of Innocent X executed at the same time (and with most of the same qualities) as the Doria Pamphilj seated portrait. Hung beneath the spacious ceilings and skylights of the gallery’s main building, the exhibition happily duplicates the conditions that many of these paintings normally enjoy at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Those conditions include not only a suitably monumental architectural setting for canvases carefully designed to be seen at a certain distance, but also the company of works by the artists who exerted the greatest influence on Velázquez in art and life: Titian, whom he knew only by his paintings, and Rubens, whom he knew in person. Accompanied by a catalog sagely aimed at a discerning but not necessarily professional public, the show is a pure delight, for eye, mind, and spirit.

Born in Seville in 1599 (a year after Gianlorenzo Bernini), Diego de Silva y Velázquez was apprenticed first to a prickly local painter named Francisco Herrera and then to Francisco Pacheco, an artist who would later declare that the essence of professionalism was to recognize a superior pupil. It is clear already from his earliest works that Velázquez was a painter of extraordinary talent, who deployed his artistic skill with an intellectual rigor and a compassion that were anything but natural for his tormented times. He chose his first models from the lowest ranks of society, recording their worn faces and patched clothing with the same precise detail that he lavished on inanimate objects, bringing out the gleam on the edge of a brass pot, or, memorably, the clarity of water in a water-seller’s glass. From the beginning, his works have a literary air; Pacheco was an educated painter who maintained a literary academy in his house, and Velázquez himself hovered longingly on the edge of the aristocracy. The water-seller, however humble his trade, stands in awe of his sparkling wares; as the Greek poet Pindar said (and Velázquez surely knew), “water is best,” the purest element in Creation. The ragged vendor, in other words, is a kind of Greek philosopher, like the famous series of ragged Greek philosophers that another Spaniard, Jusepe de Ribera, was painting in Naples at this same time (and Velázquez himself would paint the ragged and forceful Aesop on display in London). He extended the same kind of reverse treatment to the Bible, devoting the foreground of his paintings to servants and relegating scenes from the life of Christ to tiny background vignettes. In Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Jesus talks to Mary and Martha (an occasion when he gently admonished Martha for bustling about the house rather than sitting still to converse), while a pudgy young servant girl, on the edge of tears, pounds garlic in a mortar, urged on by an elderly woman. For the servant girl, the lowliest member of the household, there is no chance to hear the words of Jesus; his suggestion to sit still and listen does not apply to her.

Her tears are certainly tears of frustration, and another painting, of a mulatto servant girl listening in on the Supper at Emmaus, suggests what that frustration may be about. The mulatto girl has paused in her own drudgery at just the moment when two of the men in the next room have realized that their dinner companion is Jesus, newly resurrected from the dead; in a moment he will disappear, and they will talk about how their hearts burned within them to hear his words. The reverberations of that revelation have struck this kitchen maid into a contemplative rapture; so, too, the fretting servant in the house of Mary and Martha knows that something profound is taking place, but she is too rushed, too put upon, to ponder what that something might be.

As his experience grew, Velázquez began to obtain commissions, mostly from religious patrons in Seville. These commissions included portraits, like that of the saintly old nun Jerónima de la Fuente, a dark little woman brandishing a sturdy crucifix nearly as large as she is, and religious paintings like the probable pair of The Immaculate Conception and Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos, in which the Virgin Mary and the writer of the Book of Revelation are conceived as rather ordinary people to whom extraordinary things are happening (including being painted with extraordinary flair).

There is never a moment when Velázquez condescends to his subjects, no matter how shabby, homely, or menial. Aching for nobility himself, he accorded each of them a nobility independent of any accident of birth or wealth: a simple, unshakable human dignity. In these early works he used the same stark contrasts of light and shadow, the same humble subjects, that Caravaggio (who died in 1610) had recently made popular in Italy, though in Seville Velázquez would have known Caravaggio’s work only through copies. In any case, his technical skill, especially as a painter of still lifes, surpassed Caravaggio’s, just as it surpassed his teacher Pacheco’s. Seville, for all its liveliness, was too isolated for Velázquez to develop his gifts to their full extent. In 1622, with Pacheco’s encouragement (and by that time married to Pacheco’s daughter Juana), he traveled to Madrid in hopes of finding a position at the court of King Philip IV. His first attempt failed; his second try, the following year, succeeded. The painter of tavern scenes and servants took up an appointment as portraitist to the royal family, a position he would hold for the rest of his life.

The man who probably made it all possible was a fellow Sevillano, Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, the favorite adviser of King Philip IV. Velázquez painted his benefactor shortly after moving to Madrid, in a full-length portrait that emphasizes Olivares’s powerful, well-fed physique, his bluff, ruddy features, and his carefully groomed mustache. A later portrait shows him astride a rearing horse, the smoke of ruined cities rising from the plain below him, a surprisingly graceful leg in a hip boot deftly diverting our attention from the Count-Duke’s sturdy behind.

If Velázquez had so far staked his career on his matchless capacity to recreate the physical world in oil on canvas, his position at court plunged him into a setting where, in the words of the contemporary playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca, one could ask:

What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
A shadow, a fiction,
And the greatest good is nothing,
For life is a dream
And dreams are only dreams.
1

The young king, Philip IV, was a Habsburg, who had inherited his forebears’ prognathous jaw and spindly legs along with their intelligence and taste. In his presence, the forthright eye that Velázquez had trained on the lower classes of Seville adapted of necessity to a different kind of seeing, bringing out the majesty implicit in the King’s bizarre appearance. Indeed, the Habsburgs were as physically odd as the dwarves and fools they kept around them; it would become Velázquez’s particular gift to portray them all, kings, queens, dwarves, and fools, in the fullness of their dignity, however different their stations in life.

As it happened, both Philip’s great-grandfather Charles V and his grandfather Philip II had been painted by Titian. The royal palace of Madrid, the Alcázar, boasted Philip II’s stunning collection of mythological paintings, poesie, by the same Venetian artist. When Velázquez arrived in 1623, the Alcázar also hosted a remarkable visitor: Peter Paul Rubens, on diplomatic mission from England to represent the Earl of Buckingham. The Earl’s sudden death had put an end to Rubens’s usefulness as an ambassador; instead he used his time in Madrid to study Titian, copying the great royal canvases in his own distinctive style (a marvelous exhibit in 2001 at the Gardner Museum in Boston ranged Titian’s Rape of Europa and Rubens’s copy side by side). With Titian before them as a silent guide, Rubens showed Velázquez what sheer joy could be had with a brush full of paint. No less significantly, he showed the young Sevillian that a painter could be an urbane courtier as well as a craftsman.

Philip IV, in turn, also proved to be an unusually perceptive patron. In 1627, when some of the other court painters began to belittle Velázquez as nothing but a portraitist, Philip announced a competition for a large, prestigious history painting, The Expulsion of the Moriscos by Philip III; Velázquez won. (Unfortunately, this painting, like much of his early work in Madrid, was destroyed when fire devastated the Alcázar in 1734.) With the painter’s reputation for versatility thus secured, Philip sent him on tour to Italy, where he traveled to Venice, Rome, and Naples, talking to artists—Guido Reni and Jusepe de Ribera—and studying the works of masters like Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio.

The London show contains two of the paintings that Velázquez completed on that first Italian tour, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob and Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan. Both show a new command of anatomy; Italian painters, trained to draw from ancient statues and live models, were much more uninhibited than Spaniards about portraying nude and partially clothed figures, both male and female. The painter shows a more distinctively Spanish sensibility in another work from the same period, Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Human Soul, where a thunderstruck child (the soul), escorted by an angel, looks on in shock at the bloodied—but intact and beautiful—body of Jesus bound to a column. This is one of several cases where the catalog essay by Larry Keith on Velázquez’s painting technique is truly helpful, telling us where to look for surviving traces of the painting’s original colors, a deep green now turned black and a darkly colorless crumple of drapery that was once a striking purple.2

By this time Velázquez had begun to vary the focus of his figures in what would become a distinctive personal technique. Some, like Apollo and Vulcan in Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan(see illustration on page 54), are modeled in detail; one of Vulcan’s workmen, however, melts into the air that shimmers from the heat of the forge. The whole painting, when seen up close, is flecked with tiny painted sparks.

Back in Madrid, Velázquez again took up his duties as portraitist, coupling them with increasingly important positions in the court itself. Never a quick worker, he slowed his output still further by taking on the social duties he hoped would earn him a noble title. He tried, without much success, to prove that his parents belonged to the minor nobility; a recent scholar has proven with greater probability that his ancestors, like those of many “most Catholic” Spaniards, were partly Jewish. For all its obsessions with “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre), for all its expulsions of Moors, Jews, and Moriscos, Spanish society in the seventeenth century remained a conspicuously mixed society, however strenuously it pretended to be otherwise. It was no accident that contemporary picaresque novels recounted the adventures of roguish social climbers at the same time that Calderón’s famous play proclaimed life to be a dream, or that a Spanish priest who wrote as Tirso de Molina should, in 1630, deliver himself, in a play called The Trickster of Seville, of a slippery character named Don Juan, whose confusion about the boundaries between reality and illusion led him to invite a marble statue to dinner and find himself, as the play’s subtitle proclaimed, with a Stone Guest on his hands. If Velázquez became an increasingly subtle master of illusion himself in the 1630s, he did not lack for company.

As the London catalog shows, it is impossible to photograph Velázquez’s later paintings and come close to capturing their startlingly real effect on the human eye; they depend too entirely on our own habits of selective vision. In the catalog, a portrait like Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver looks like a finely modeled, bright-eyed head on top of an Impressionist painting, all marvelous surface effects, yet at the right distance, with our eyes focused on Philip’s face, the complex lattice of Impressionist paint strokes resolves into a sumptuous silver brocade, as richly detailed, from this carefully calibrated vantage, as the Seville water-seller’s glassful of rippling liquid.

A little painting of six-year-old Crown Prince Baltasar Carlos on a rearing horse, Infante Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School, sets the solemn little boy against the sketchy silhouettes of his parents in the background and a middle ground held by the strapping figure of Olivares in white leggings; these evanescent images, too, take on an almost photographic precision when seen from the right viewpoint, a viewpoint, however, that a camera’s lens, unconnected to a brain, can never duplicate. Baltasar Carlos himself, pale and serious, grasps the reins of his horse with one hand, his other arm jauntily akimbo; these gestures, together with the child’s stately posture, suggest an inborn authority.

Velázquez paints the royal children with the same attention that he reserves for their elders, but also for the household’s horses, dogs, dwarves, and fools. The remarkable painting of a boar hunt known as the Tela Real, the “Royal Canvas,” contrasts the charge of Philip IV with the agony of one of his dogs, who lies bleeding in the foreground; it is one of the rare images in which Velázquez dwells pointedly on the cruelty of power, and he does so, like Poussin, in the midst of a ravishing landscape where even the King is a tiny, evanescent creature. As Calderón wrote:

The king dreams that he is king, and lives
With this deception, commanding,
Disposing, and governing,
And the applause that he receives
On loan, he writes on the wind.
3

Pale, solemn Prince Baltasar Carlos would die at the age of sixteen; the portraits that Velázquez made of him suggest his frailty as well as his precocious self-possession.

In 1649, King Philip sent Velázquez back to Italy, to buy Italian paintings for the royal collection; it was on this trip that he painted Pope Innocent X, although the two of them had met years before in Madrid, where Giovanni Battista Pamphilj had been a papal legate in the 1620s. This may have been the moment when he painted his one known female nude, the Venus that has been a treasure of the National Gallery since its purchase in 1906. Here, as in so many of Velázquez’s paintings, the centuries have darkened the color of the lavender drapery on which the goddess reclines; the pinkish tinge along her inner thigh still glows with that reflected color, but her silvery skin also retains a slight flush, enough to give her softly indefinite form its touch of reality. The painting still shows the marks of an attack by a knife-wielding suffragette; it is quite reserved by comparison with the uninhibited nudes that Titian painted for Philip II, but its soft focus and languid mood—not to mention Venus’ impossibly narrow waist—are just as powerfully erotic.

The death of Prince Baltasar Carlos compelled the widowed King Philip to look for another wife; he chose his cousin Mariana of Austria, who was also his niece, and thirty years younger than he. Velázquez’s portrait of the young queen shows the face of a wretchedly unhappy adolescent drowned in a sea of opulent clothing, from her feather-topped wig to her black velvet gown, embroidered in silver. In conspicuous contrast, her stepdaughter, the Infanta Marìa Teresa, manages her outlandish royal garb with a flair reminiscent of her brother Baltasar Carlos on horseback. Still, Mariana dutifully bore her husband-uncle-cousin three children, only one of whom, the Infanta Margarita Teresa, avoided the pitfalls of such extreme inbreeding. Velázquez showed the infanta as a strong-willed little girl in an extravagant blue dress, clutching a fur muff for dear life, perhaps, as the catalog entry suggests, a new and much-loved present from Vienna. For all the formality of her dress, she comes across as a small person of definite character. He painted Margarita Teresa’s brother, Infante Felipe Próspero, when he was little more than an infant, a tragically vulnerable little boy who rests a listless hand on the back of a child-size throne. Its seat is occupied by a lively little dog, a coil of energy whose antics point up the worrying stillness of the tiny, sickly prince with his sweet, blue-eyed fragility. He would not survive much longer. The third child, Prince Carlos, was born too late for Velázquez to record him, and perhaps it is just as well; mentally retarded, he would eventually reign (through regents) but never marry.

For many years, Philip himself had avoided ordering a new portrait; like Innocent X, he found Velázquez’s eye too penetrating. The likeness he finally commissioned in 1656 or 1657 shows a double chin beneath the Habsburg jaw, but the most telling transformation in Philip’s face is in his eyes, colorless, lightless, and profoundly sad; Velázquez has omitted the spark of white on the cornea that normally gives his subjects their expressions of bright alertness. By that time the painter had risen to the post of chamberlain (aposentador) in Philip’s household; they were not exactly friends, but their relationship was one of rare familiarity, enough to provide Velázquez at last, near the close of his life (1660), with a noble title. The red cross of that knighthood in the Order of Santiago would be stroked across Velázquez’s black doublet in his most famous painting, Las Meninas, by none other than King Philip himself.

Las Meninas has not come to the show in London, and that is probably just as well. With its play of mirrors, paintings, and portraiture, this image of the Infanta Margarita Teresa and her entourage in a hall of the Alcázar has been singled out for obsessive attention ever since Michel Foucault used the painting to introduce his theory of “epistemes” in Les Mots et les choses of 1966. Its presence (like that of the Doria Pamphilj Innocent X) would have robbed attention from the many other works in which Velázquez explores these same boundaries between reality and appearance, art and existence, the painter’s craft and the painter’s insight, destiny and achievement, and all the other paradoxes of the profession he exercised with such matchless skill, judgment, and nobility.

Letters

The King's Cross? February 15, 2007

  1. 1

    Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La Vida Es Sueño, Act II, Scene 19. 

  2. 2

    The other essays, by John H. Elliott on “Appearance and Reality in the Spain of Velázquez,” Dawson W. Carr on “The Art and Life of Velázquez,” Javier Portús on the Venus, and Xavier Bray on “Velázquez and Britain,” are equally well written and to the point. 

  3. 3

    Calderón, La Vida Es Sueño