Velázquez: Painter and Courtier
by Jonathan Brown
Yale University Press, 322 pp., $45.00
Velázquez was one of the first artists to understand the importance of painting directly from life, and he did so from the start. His knowledge of geometry, philosophy, scientific theory, and even medicine (suggested by what we know of his library) did not get in his way when he turned to the canvas; nor did the conventions observed by his fellow painters in Spain. It is as if all his knowledge was acquired in order to release him from it and allow him to paint what he saw. This is how a painter’s eye still sees him.
Art historians often see art differently from artists. Being more attentive to what is painted instead of how it’s painted, they tend to be carried away into cultural history. This is not the case with the recently published book by Jonathan Brown on Velázquez. It is one of the best books on Velázquez I have read, the product of twenty-five years of a growing passion for the artist during the author’s investigations of virtually every aspect of life in seventeenth-century Spain.
Brown’s remarkable erudition does not tempt him to venture beyond the “wall of fact,” as he puts it, although the facts are scarce. There is no remaining correspondence, as in the case of Rubens or Poussin; nothing is left in writing about Velázquez’s ideas, and almost nothing about his character—beside the saying that he was witty. But his activities at the court of Philip IV and principal events of his life are well documented. His interests can be guessed from the listed contents of his library, which contained virtually all the books a seventeenth-century humanist could have wished. Brown concludes from its titles that “without knowing the name of the owner, it could be supposed that he was either an artist with an interest in science, or a scientist with an interest in art.”
Although Velázquez’s painting gives the impression of a simple transcription of nature, this apparent simplicity is both misleading and enormously difficult to analyze or describe. Brown writes: “Blessed by nature with extraordinary talent, and by the kind with extraordinary opportunities, he became the only Spanish painter of his age capable of holding his own with the best works of Flanders and Italy.” But his work was not considered of any importance in France or Italy during his lifetime. He remained unnoticed by the principal European commentators of the seventeenth century, such as the Italian classical-art theorist Giovan-Pietro Bellori, and the French theorist Roger de Piles. He is mentioned with contempt by the French historian and critic André Felibien (not mentioned by Brown) who writes that Velázquez lacked the “bel air of which only the Italians were capable.” Putting Velázquez together with the minor Spanish landscape painter Francisco Collantes, Felibien concludes that they had “the same qualities which we find among others who were not first rate.”
Although Velázquez made two long visits to Italy (1629–1630 and 1649–1651), and while …