Velázquez: Painter and Courtier
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 his portraits of Pope Innocent X and of Juan de Pareja had some impact on artists working in Rome in the 1650s, Velázquez was soon forgotten there. This can be explained by the dominance in Italy of the classical ideal, which did not admit such straightforward painting from life as Velázquez’s, and imposed instead the Neoplatonic conception of idealizing or “improving” nature.
In Spain itself, no other Spanish artist of the seventeenth century was written about so much during his own lifetime, yet he had scarcely any influence on other Spanish painters. “Given the sophistication of his art,” Brown writes,
it is not surprising that he left no immediate followers. Except in the realm of court-portraiture, there is scarcely a trace of his impact on the painters who succeeded him. The School of Velázquez, to use that antiquated but still expressive term, had no pupils. His successors at court and the other painters in Madrid turned to other models, notably Rubens, and painted almost as if Velázquez had never lived. Within the history of Spanish art, he stands alone; the greatest of Spanish painters seems to have been the least typical representative of Spanish art.
One could argue, as Brown does, that he was isolated because “he was a gentleman and knight of Santiago while his colleagues lived as artisans, finding work where they could,” or because of his own unique qualities as a painter; but of course the two are connected. His genius could take its own direction because he was at the center of power and could follow his inclinations as none of his contemporaries could. “The patronage of Philip IV, a discerning, passionate admirer of painting, gave him the freedom he needed to paint as he chose and to test his mettle against the masterpieces of the royal collection.” This was a rare situation for an artist, and not only in seventeenth-century Spain.
Yet Spain was a peculiar place. The Renaissance had its effect on sculpture and architecture there, but hardly on painting, which remained stagnant and provincial. There was, as Brown says, little significant patronage for Spanish artists other than from the Church, and ecclesiastical patronage went chiefly to architecture and sculpture; the king and Court patronized the great artists of the European centers.
Things started to change in the sixteenth century during the last years of the reign of Philip II, with the construction of El Escorial between 1563 and 1584. Italian artists made the trip to Spain to work on the building and some of them, such as Bartolemé and Vicente Carducho, even remained there. They brought with them the buon maniera of history painting based on proportion and perspective, which aimed at fidelity to nature. Still those aspects of a picture that fell under the categories of disposition and décor (the positioning of figures and propriety) were dictated by the Church. Thus, as Brown rightly puts it, the painter was a mere practitioner rather than a creator. Medieval rules still governed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists in Spain, who were considered craftsmen, not artists, on the same level as carpenters, masons, and butchers.
That was the prevailing situation when Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville on June 6, 1599, to parents of the minor nobility, and when he entered the studio of Francisco Pacheco (1564–1654) in 1610. Pacheco’s studio and academy were described by Palomino, often called “the Spanish Vasari,” in 1724 as a “gilded cage of art and an academy and a school for the greatest minds of Seville.” During his apprenticeship with Pacheco, whose daughter he married in 1618, Velázquez must have been taught idealist theory. Pacheco, who was to become his first biographer (1638), was apparently a believer in the idealist mode of painting, mixed with Catholic propriety and Jesuit overtones, but he was more concerned with technique. He was not much interested in painting from life. He recommends in his Arte de la pintura (1649) that the artist use a print instead of a live model for painting the female nude, and he must have disapproved of the influence of Caravaggio. But after Velázquez passed his examination and was granted the license to practice as an independent master, on March 14, 1617, his first works were all painted from life. They rejected the idealizing manner he had been taught, and followed Caravaggio’s example, at least in their willingness to emphasize direct observation. This was more a matter of attitude than of style: “truth” must take precedence over beauty.
Velázquez’s relation to Caravaggio and to the Caravaggism of the time has been much debated. The great Italian art historian Roberto Longhi saw in the early work of Velázquez a direct link to Caravaggio. But Benedict Nicolson pointedly excluded Velázquez from his catalog of the “International Caraveggesque Movement” (1979) and Jonathan Brown rejects the connection with Caravaggio on stylistic grounds, even though the example of Caravaggio was exciting to most of the young artists in Western Europe for at least a decade up to the 1620s. It can be argued that Velázquez did not see any original painting by Caravaggio in Seville. The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art), brought to Spain from Naples in 1610 by Don Juan Conde de Benavente, was hanging in the palace of Valladolid. The young Velázquez may have seen a copy, but there is no evidence that he did so.
Brown believes that Velázquez was more influenced by northern painters, as was first suggested by Carl Justi in his pioneering biography of Velázquez (1888). Brown mentions the Netherlandish artists Pieter Aertsen (1508/9–1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1530–1574), as well as the Cremonese painter Vincenzo Campi 1525/1530–1575). It is plausible that works by such northern and Cremonese artists could have been in Seville, a rich international port where goods from all over the world were exchanged, and trade was principally in Netherlandish hands. Velázquez must have seen not only prints by Jacob Matham after Aertsen, but originals as well of his Keuken, or kitchen scenes with still life, called in Spain bodegones. Brown also mentions as a possible influence the “subspecies” of northern Italian genre painting called pittura ridicola, “a type of scene in which the antics of the lower orders were turned to moralizing purposes.”
Frequently, these pictures display still-life objects as tokens of vicious behavior, employing a form of symbolism which had long been in existence.
Pacheco had written of this type of painting, and Brown points to at least one Spanish example by the obscure Andalusian painter Juan Esteban de Ubeda in his satire of gluttony dated 1606. Brown thinks that in “using familiar objects which symbolize the vice of gluttony, sexual license and drunkenness,” Velázquez’s early genre painting may convey a moralizing message. Even such works as Old Woman Cooking (1618, Edinburgh, National Gallery) or the Waterseller (London, Wellington Museum) may in his view contain cryptic messages.
These early paintings, which seem to me rather hard and inert, are for Brown “audacious but overreaching, and finally unresolved.” They were nevertheless extraordinary achievements for such a young painter—Velázquez was nineteen years old when he painted the Old Woman Cooking. The early works got him increasing attention, which, with the backing of his former teacher, now father-in-law and admirer, brought him to Madrid, where he was commissioned to paint the portrait of the young King Philip IV, five years his junior.
The portrait was a success and within a few months, on October 6, 1623, Velázquez was appointed by royal decree a royal painter, pintor real. For the next thirty-seven years, until his death on August 6, 1660, he lived at Court, rose in its hierarchy, and produced the great works that probably wouldn’t exist had he remained in Seville, where he was settling down to a comfortable life with his young wife and two daughters. The move from Seville to Madrid must have been something like a move from New York to Albany. Madrid was a small, dull place centered around the palace, but as its citizens boasted, “Selo Madrid es corte,” “only Madrid is the court.”