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Visual arts >

British love affair with the

Nicholas Cranfield enjoys the sheer brilliance of Velázques

THE TRUSTEES of the National Gallery are to be congratulated for allowing a large-scale exhibition to be mounted in the principal galleries. One glance at the first of the four rooms that constitute the exhibition space, with scenes of life in Seville 1617-20, convinced me that, at last, sense had prevailed in Trafalgar Square.

In the second, The Forge of Vulcan (The Prado) and Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob (El Escorial) are seen with natural light. There is no evidence that they were conceived of as a pair, but they profoundly make sense of each other.

Rather than the cramped Sainsbury Wing bunker, in which Caravaggio’s huge canvases were insensitively buried last year (Arts, 4 March 2005), these upper-gallery rooms allow this Spanish master to breath and to be encountered at a distance. We stand back and readily can appreciate this remarkable exhibition, which covers all of Velázquez’s working life.

The British, and Londoners in particular, are no strangers to the work of Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez (1599-1660). A sell-out exhibition stands testimony to that, as Dr Xavier Bray’s insightful essay in the catalogue carefully illustrates British enthusiasm for this most Spanish of painters. There are no fewer than nine of his works in the permanent collection of the National Gallery alone, and the Kingston Lacey portrait of Camillo Massimi hung here on long-term loan.

Eight paintings are elsewhere across these islands. Of these, Lord Bristol’s portrait The Infante Baltasar Carlos as a Hunter, painted around 1636 eight years before he predeceased his father, may or may not be autograph, while the Edinburgh bodegone (tavern scene) of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) is as important in Velázquez’s oeuvre as is the Apsley House The Water-Seller of Seville.

This exhibition brings together 46 paintings, from Velázquez’s earliest teenage paintings in his home city to the later years at Court in Madrid, as well as pieces from his two visits to Rome (1629-31, 1649-51). Broadly chronological (although once again the handlist is not always in the same order as catalogue entries), the exhibition is beautifully designed.

The first room gives us the Seville in which the artist was first apprenticed to the local painter Franciso Pacheco, who became his father-in-law in 1618. Among the religious commissions, the Prado’s Adoration of the Magi stands out. The seeming intimacy of this has sometimes suggested that Velázquez used his wife and daughter, as well as himself and Pacheco, as models for this intimate portrait group.

But life in Seville, especially for a teenager, was not just about Church. There are familiar scenes set in taverns, and of life below stairs. Lads no older than the artist himself, found supping, with an old man enjoying a bowl of mussels, or draining a cup of wine in a drinking game, make up the backstage world that Velázquez catches so fleetingly.

The realism of two droplets of water, caught on the rough ceramic of the water-seller’s pitcher; of an orange that is precariously balanced in the mouth of another earthenware jar, and of the cold metal edge of a bronze pestle and mortar that turns up on every kitchen bench must have shaken the older artist.

Little wonder that Velázquez was soon noticed and commended at Court. But it was not these genre scenes that brought Velázquez to prominence or to the king’s attention. Indeed, it may not even have been the ecclesiastical commissions of 1620 that we see here.

In addition to three conventional altarpieces, we see the formidable portrait The Venerable Mother Jerónima de la Fuente in a version found in the Convent of St Isabel in 1931. Mother Jerónima was 66 at the time, more than three times the age of the young artist, and had stopped off in Seville on her way to the Philippines to set up the first house of Poor Clares there, which she did in 1621 (she then ran it for nine years).

The case for her beatification was first raised in 1734; if it had rested on this portrait (or its autograph copy in the Prado), she would be more widely known now than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her rugged determination is more than equal to the pious Suárez de Ribera, who kneels next to her in a posthumous painting made for his tomb in the same year.

Velázquez was summoned to court, by order of the Count-Duke Olivares, and filled a vacancy in the roster of king’s painters around the 18-year-old monarch Felipe IV. His first, unremarkable, depiction of the king (Dallas, not exhibited) none the less found favour, and, as they say, the rest is history. Salaried at 20 ducats per month, Velázquez was expressly commissioned to be the sole portrayer of the young king. In October 1626, the king granted him several benefices to produce an annual pension of 300 ducats, for which he needed papal dispensation.

Leaving his wife and two daughters behind, he went to the Eternal City in the summer of 1629. Although he remained very much his own master, he apprehended the classical grandeur of the city and its paintings. It was in Rome that he learned, probably from Guido Reni, to forgo the characteristic red ground on which he had painted, and adopt silver white, giving his canvases a glowing inner light.

No Spanish painter before had sought to produce work on such a large scale as The Forge of Vulcan or the tale of how Jacob is duped by his sons. Each canvas has five figures relating to a pivotal figure, set apart from them by divinity or by age. All ten figures, the smiths in the forge and the shamed brothers, could form a complete textbook for the mastery of life classes. Seen together in the Prado exhibition in 1990, these great canvases respond to one another here in an extraordinary way.

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In one, we see classicism in the half-naked torsos. These are the disturbed and discomfited mates of Vulcan, bristling at Apollo’s unwanted news that he has been cuckolded. Joseph’s half-brothers, on the other hand, writhe with mixed emotions, which range from cynicism and deceit to regret and, ultimately, in the shy figure of Benjamin nearest his father, the possibility of redemption.

A slightly less successful pairing is formed of the two full-length figures of the Count-Duke himself, painted in 1624 when he was still a Knight of the Order of Calatrava (a painting that is now in São Paulo), and of another knight of the same order, Don Pedro de Barberana (Kimbell Art Museum). This is as much because of the poor condition of the Brazilian painting as because of the seemingly disproportionate scale of its subject, and because one can see why the authorship of Velázquez has not always been accepted for the Barberana.

Elsewhere, the portrait heads are uniformly dazzling, and are brilliantly displayed. Hung side by side are three august ecclesiastics: Pope Innocent X (1650), Archbishop Fernando de Valdés, and Camillo Massimi (1620-77) in the peacock-blue soutane of a cameriere segreto.

Massimi, who became Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1653 and was finally raised to the cardinalate at the end of his life (1670, under Pope Clement X), was Velázquez’s main collector in his lifetime, and owned no fewer than half a dozen portraits. Each is redoubtable; Velázquez does nothing to conceal the pope’s arrogant disdain. They met on 13 August 1650, and it does not look as if conversation even reached discussing the weather. On either side, the Archbishop and Massimi offer the humane face of the Church, approachable and yet shrewd, doves, not serpents.

From his more local group of friends come two unnamed courtiers, one from Munich while the other (Apsley House, London) is sometimes identified as José Nieto. Although these are reasonably early, they are alongside the later portrait of Francesco I, Duke of Este (1638), a painting seemingly deemed too fragile to travel to Madrid in 1990. The lightness of brushstrokes and the increasingly spare use of paint are already apparent.

It is this shift in style which makes the paintings of the last ten years so fascinating. It does not take much learning to see where Manet and Singer Sargent learned how to master the human form when we encounter Mariana of Austria, Felipe IV’s niece and his second wife, and their daughter, the Infanta Margarita. Jewels and frocks become more than accessories when viewed from a distance, and The Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress, from Vienna, the last of Velázquez’s works, is a stunning tribute of an eight-year-old loved into paint by a sexagenarian artist.

“Velázquez” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 21 January 2007. Phone 020 7747 2885.

www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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Fri 28 Nov 14 @ 12:51
Our interview from 2009 with PD James, who died yesterday http://t.co/2v7CmTwt6C http://t.co/NFJ6oISDBf

Fri 28 Nov 14 @ 12:14
Our editor has disloyally written for the Guardian's comment page today. However, it is pretty good. On Black Friday: http://t.co/tHWHa4X9y0