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Velazquez, Or Social Climbing As Art

ISSUE:  Winter 1987
Velázquez: Painter and Courtier. By Jonathan Brown. Yale. $45.00.

The Spanish genius for producing painters of astonishing originality is admirable. Any listing of the greatest world painters invariably includes the names of Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Picasso, and Dalí (some would add Murillo, Ribera, Zurbarán, and Miró), and countless tomes have been produced analyzing their works and contributions to Western art. Among them, none is more highly regarded by the connoisseurs of art (as opposed to the merchants of art) than Diego de Velázquez. Velázquez painted in an era of unprecedented artistic richness in Spain: his contemporaries included Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Góngora, Quevcdo, and Calderón. In 1895 Edouard Manet confirmed the newly-discovered vogue for Velázquez (who had fallen out of fashion in the 18th century due to the general inaccessibility of both Spain and the royal collections where his works were kept): “He is the painter of painters. He has astonished me, he has ravished me.” Readers of Jonathan Brown’s splendid new Velázquez: Painter and Courtier may have a similar reaction.

Velázquez, born in Seville in 1599, figures among the world’s most brilliant, but most “notoriously unproductive” artists. His total production is relatively small (estimates range from 83 paintings to 274; Brown conservatively accepts 105 paintings as wholly or partially attributable to Velázquez), and declines rapidly after 1640, when he became more and more involved in court decoration for King Philip IV. The question posed by Brown is, why did Velázquez seemingly sacrifice his artistic career to the ephemeral rewards of life in the Spanish court? His answer: “To my mind, it is clear that he knew what he was doing when he sought promotion in the hierarchy of royal service. By analyzing his motives, I hope to reveal the central dilemma of Velázquez’s career—his attempt to reconcile the often-contradictory demands of the desire to be considered both a great gentleman and a great artist.” Brown defends Velázquez against accusations that he sacrificed his art to ambition, showing us instead how the painter transformed court decoration into an artistic activity. Velázquez, he notes, “designed a stage for the theater of life.”

Little is known about Velázquez’s early years in Seville until he became apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco—an untalented artist, but a lively man who surrounded himself with interesting humanist scholars—in 1610. Brown finds the key to Velázquez’s ambitions in this atmosphere in Seville, which valued thought and achievement, even among artists, who were considered at the time little more than artisans who worked with their hands, not their intellects. There, Velázquez got a chance to develop “his mind as well as his hand.” His paintings from this period tended to be scenes of everyday life, religious subjects, or portraits of friends, which Brown describes with great care. It is in this early period that Velázquez paints his first “masterpiece” (“Old Woman Cooking,” 1618), which stimulates Brown to comment upon the painter’s strengths yet at the same time not glossing over his flaws (some woodenness of brushstroke, awkward posing, flat composition, and distorted perspective). This painting contains many of Velázquez’s characteristics: muted colors (russet browns, tawny beiges, grayish tans, black, white), bold yet subtle brushwork, psychological depth, and a rich interest in people.

Brown is a perceptive and often acute art critic. His discussions of the individual paintings are infused with intelligent commentary, convincing interpretation, and sharp observation. His eye is keen, and he helps the reader to see what he is seeing in each painting. The superb illustrations (326, many in full color and keyed to the text) are an invaluable aid. An example of his lively style can be found in his discussion of the little-known portrait of Mother Jeronima de la Fuente, painted in 1620. Brown writes:

. . . Velázquez took the measure of his sitter by looking her straight in the eye. As portrayed by him, Mother Jerónima is an indomitable person. Wearing the dark brown Franciscan serge like protective armor, and brandishing her cross like a war club, she seems to embody the determined missionary’s message inscribed in the flowing white ribbon: “I shall be satisfied as long as He is glorified.” Her tight-lipped face with its pouchy cheeks, concisely framed by a black and white cowl, obeys the text of the Latin inscription written above: “It is good to await the salvation of God in silence.” It is no surprise to learn that her mission to the Philippines ended in success.

Velázquez journeyed to Madrid in 1622, and Brown pauses to include a short history of that city, along with speculations on why Philip II would settle his court in such an inhospitable place. We are also given a short history of the Habsburg hierarchy and the differences between government service and household service. Velázquez entered the latter, and slowly became associated with Philip IV, ruler of the most powerful country in Europe. As one of several court painters, Velázquez painted royal portraits (which “were not intended to reveal the character of the sitters, but rather their status as rulers,” as Brown reminds us) and continued to practice his art. From Rubens, who visited Madrid in 1628, Velázquez learned not only additional artistic techniques, but also how to be a painter and a man of fine manners and learning. Rubens provided Velázquez “with a model to emulate.” In this period he painted his justly famous “The Feast of Bacchus,” which Brown categorizes as “a nearly brilliant realization of a brilliant concept.”

The trip to Italy in 1629 was the true turning point in Velázquez’s career. His style underwent a radical change, the results of which are seen in the stunning “Forge of Vulcan” and “Joseph’s Coat.” “It is clear from these two paintings that his stay in Rome had turned Velázquez from a gifted but somewhat provincial painter into a brilliant master of the prevailing international style.” Upon returning to the Madrid of Philip IV his creativity and productivity increased (these were his most productive years), and he painted a number of impressive portraits—including the famous portrait of Olivares, the king’s most powerful counselor—as well as the complex “Surrender at Breda.” These paintings served him and his subjects well: his own prestige increased, and he successfully portrayed his sitters amongst the trappings of power. We see these paintings afresh with Brown’s guidance; a revelation (to this reader, at least) is the group portrait, “Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School” (mid-1630’s), which, in Velázquez’s hands, becomes less a portrait of the young prince and heir to the Spanish throne than an homage to the arrogant Olivares, the prince’s principal instructor. As Brown comments:

The paintings for the Hall of Realms and the portraits of Olivares thus reveal Velázquez as the complete maker of political imagery. From the traditional equestrian portraits to the imaginative pictures of the surrender [at Breda] and the riding lesson of the prince, he created vivid pictures of his patrons’ status and pretensions. For the king, secure in his majesty, he made skillfully nuanced versions of traditional types; for Olivares, struggling to keep his balance on the shifting ground of the favorite, he promoted claims of power and glory which were destroyed by events.

Brown illuminates the background of each picture, its historical context, and the precedents of the paintings by interweaving social and political commentary. His citation of numerous examples of comparable paintings from art history enables the reader to follow his argument more easily, and he discusses each new step in Velázquez’s artistic development. That argument continues to build to the puzzling issue of Velázquez’s sudden drop in production after 1640. The change seemed ill-timed, since Velázquez was, in the 1630’s, near the height of his creative powers. In Brown’s words,

“Mars,” above all, is an exhibition of the style of virtuoso painting which Velázquez progressively refined during the 1630s. Here the powers of suggestive, allusive painting are raised to new heights in the blurring of details, the amazing economy of technique, and the complete mastery of effects of light and color. As this work makes clear, Velázquez, by the year 1640 had broken new ground for the art of painting. It therefore comes as a shock to discover that just as he had attained artistic maturity, his output dropped precipitously and he became in effect a part-time painter.

Did Velázquez sacrifice his art to curry favor in the royal household? Did he suddenly lose his talent? Did he grow to dislike painting? Did the king lose interest in art? Brown argues that Velázquez, an ambitious and intelligent man, wanted wealth, prestige, and social status in a society which viewed artists as mere craftsmen, and perceived the best way of advancing his career to be through the acquisition of offices and rewards. Since the king not only demonstrated keen interest in acquiring paintings but also needed to display them properly (that is, in such a way as to enhance not only his aesthetic environment, but also make the appropriate comments on royal power and prestige), Velázquez became more and more useful for the second goal, i.e., the display of the artistic patrimony. Hence, he spent greater amounts of time remodeling and redecorating the important rooms of the king’s residences. “To put the matter in sharp focus, it can be said that after 1640 Velázquez became the designer and decorator to the court of Philip IV. In certain ways, the role he played was analogous to that of Inigo Jones at the court of Charles I, Bernini at the court of Urban VIII, or LeBrun at the court of Louis XIV. In each instance, a great patron employed a great artist to design a suitable setting to display his wealth, power, and taste.” As decorator, he chose paintings, acquired pieces from Italy, had frames constructed, made decisions on placement, and supervised the overall concept of the remodeling work being done. With Philip IV’s support and Velázquez’s talent, the Escorial and the Alcázar in Madrid became two of the grandest palaces in Europe. The Alcázar in particular, with its wealth of paintings (as opposed to furnishings or other ornamentation common in most Baroque palaces), became “a seat of unsurpassed artistic splendor.” Brown discusses in detail the rooms designed by Velázquez, the selection and placement of the paintings, and the effects sought after by the artist.

Even though Velázquez dedicated the majority of the last 20 years of his life to his tasks as redecorator, he did not give up on painting nor did his talent wane. On the contrary, four of his most brilliant paintings, labeled by Brown among the “masterpieces,” were painted during this time: “Venus and Cupid” (ca. 1648), the portrait of the Infanta Margarita (the star of “Las Meninas”) at the age of two (1653), “The Spinners” (ca. 1656), and the incomparable “Las Meninas” (ca. 1656). Brown’s fascinating interpretations of “The Spinners” (“one of the greatest demonstrations of the art of painting ever achieved”) and the recognized masterpiece “Las Meninas” support his contention that Velázquez continually curried favor with courtiers in an attempt to improve his social status. His ambitions to prove his noble status were fulfilled when the Cross of the Order of Santiago was conferred upon him in 1659 (only following royal and papal intervention, however), in defiance of the Order’s explicit exclusion of petitioners involved in “base occupations,” which painting was clearly considered to be. Hence,

Velázquez’s career revolves around this problem. He seems to have habored [sic] two enormous, but mutually exclusive ambitions. One was to be regarded as a great painter; the other was to be regarded as a great gentlemen. . . . In the end, Velázquez found the only way out of his quandry: he devoted himself to the service of the king, the one person who had the power both to advance and reconcile his artistic and social aspirations.

By the time he died in 1660, he had achieved his dual goals. By turning himself into an accomplished courtier he witnessed a steady rise in his fortune and influence, while at the same time developing his talent into one of the most sophisticated and advanced expressions of art ever seen.

Brown’s book concludes with two appendices (problems associated with Velázquez scholarship—dating, attribution, etc.—and a list of paintings and drawings); extensive notes (642 in number) which discuss bibliographical issues and also contain interesting information and detail; a bibliographical essay; a select bibliography, and an index. Only one misprint of significance no doubt will be corrected in future editions: Velázquez was in Aragón in 1644, not 1664.

Coffee table art books, like children, are Frequently best when seen and not heard. Brown’s intelligent and readable Velázquez: Painter and Courtier is a delicious exception.


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