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Master artist courting success

29 May 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees a treasury of paintings by Diego Velázquez

© Patrimonio Nacional

Sacred and secular by Diego Velázquez: Joseph's Coat, c.1630, from the Real Monasterio del Escorial, Madrid.

Sacred and secular by Diego Velázquez: Joseph's Coat, c.1630, from the Real Monasterio del Escorial, Madrid.

THROUGHOUT the past Viennese winter, visitors to the Kunsthistorisches Museum were able to enjoy the first exhibition dedicated to Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) in the German-speaking world, thanks to the generous initiative of the outgoing curator Sylvia Pagden, for whom it was a farewell gift to the city after 25 years.

Richly supported by the collections of the Prado, that compact exhibition has now been expanded to offer a French audience a wider show with some 50 paintings by the master. Each exhibition has very different catalogue essays and individual entries for the works on display, and together the volumes combine to show the current state of scholarship on art from the golden age of Seville, last fully examined by Dawson Carr in his 2006 show for the National Gallery (Arts, 24 November 2006).

It also includes pictures by Velázquez's teacher and later father in law, Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), and several of his own pupils, among whom his later collaborator Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (c.1612-1667) succeeded him at his death in the important role as painter to the king (pintor de cámara).

The exhibition occasioned the first state visit of King Felipe VI of Spain and his wife to France, an event sadly cut short by the Airbus A320 disaster, news of which broke as the royal party made their way past the Grand Palais to the presidential palace.

The bare-tree-lined Avenue Champs-Elysées fluttered with the tricolour of France and the Spanish bandera, visible signs of nations now united in grief, whereas the exhibition was intended to be a joint venture celebrating the best in European co-operation.

More to the point, as the Louvre has no paintings by Velázquez, perhaps the most signal gap in a Western art collection of any great European gallery, the broad sweep of the exhibition is a veritable treasury.

It isn't that the French have not tried. In 1905, Thomas Agnew bought the so-called "Rokeby Venus" from the heirs of the North Yorkshire estate for £30,500 and hawked it around several national galleries for £45,000. The British government could not find the money, and it was offered elsewhere for £60,000 (there is a moral in this somewhere), a bid price that Agnew's favourably offered to reduce to £55,000 if the Louvre bought it.

The winter of 1905-06 was spent in further haggling until the recently established National Art Collection Fund in the UK was able to buy it for the nation before the French could. The Trustees have generously made the celebrated painting of a naked woman available to both the Austrian and cross-Channel audiences.

Velázquez grew up in a densely populated city, the fourth largest in Europe, after London, Naples, and Paris. The last of the Moriscos were expelled from Spain by Philip III shortly before Velázquez reached the age of ten, ending once and for all the religious toleration that had characterised the city for five centuries when it had been part of the Muslim world, from 712 to 1248. American money, in terms of the silver from New Spain arriving at the Spanish entrepôt, and a flourishing port that controlled monopolies had sponsored Seville's expansion in the 16th century.

A cityscape published in Amsterdam in 1617 by Simon Wynhoustsz Frisius and Johannes Jansionius, of which the British Library copy on display is one of only two known to survive, shows a city that was bristling with churches along the banks of the river Guadalquivir, three of which defied being named and simply appear marked as "St . . ."'.

Coming from a noble family, Velázquez unusually took up the modest trade of painting, for which we can be truly thankful. Had he remained in Seville, he would most probably have produced more religious works, the stock in trade of most Spanish artists, such as Zurbarán and Murillo.

In his working life, he produced possibly only a dozen devotional paintings, of which half a dozen derive from his early years in Seville, and the rest were executed in the capital between the 1620s and mid-1630s. It is as if, once he was a successful court painter, no one dared ask him for altarpieces

He was still a teenager, working in Pacheco's workshop, when he painted his first two religious works, a St John on the Island of Patmos and a pendant of the Immaculate Conception. The latter is in the show, while the other remains in Trafalgar Square. Both are thought to have been commissioned for the long-destroyed Seville convent of the Shod Carmelites.

The doctrine of the immaculate conception, which was finally accepted as an article of revealed truth in 1854, had been a commonplace devotion in Anglo-Saxon England in the early 11th century long before it was encountered at the papal court. The Carmelites adopted it as part of their Marian devotion in the founding constitution in 1294, and it was the Fratres Beatae Mariae de Monte Carmeli who enlivened the devotion in the realms of the Catholic Kings after the Reconquista.

Painting this Marian image in his future father-in-law's studio around 1618-19, it is likely that Velázquez well knew the devotional statuary of Juan Martínez Montañés, since Pacheco often provided the polychrome for such statues. The statue on display here, which is still in the parish church in Seville for which it was commissioned in 1608/09, shows striking similarities in the posture of the Virgin. As in the 2009/10 London exhibition "The Sacred Made Real", they are placed side by side, and here make a striking opening to the first of 12 galleries.

Thereafter, we get to see a recently recovered painting, The Education of the Virgin, from the same period, which has been found languishing in an attic store in Yale University. Although not all critics accept that it is an autograph work, it shows the young artist struggling to make sense of another's work, in this case copying elements of a less well-regarded artist whose version Pacheco had in fact criticised in his writing about art as out of line with the tenets of the Council of Trent, which had stated the need to portray "the Gospel truth" and nothing but the truth.

From a painting in the Mercedarian monastery in Seville by the older Juan de Rolas (c.1570-1625), Velázquez borrowed a side table with an open drawer covered with St Anne's trinkets, spools of silk and a bracelet, and a rush basket containing freshly laundered napery. At a later stage, the artist added the unconvincing figure of St Joachim, returning with a basket of eggs. No doubt the nuns of St Anne's convent in Seville were pleased with the result.

That Velázquez became quite the master of still life is shown in several vivid details that litter other early pictures; half an orange with salt cod on a dish set between two diners in a tavern (Budapest); a circular cheese box set in front of three musicians from Berlin; and the crucifix lying on the chest of the queen's dead chaplain, Fr Simón de Rojas. The Paris curators have questioned this attribution and reassigned the work from Valencia to his great court rival Vicente Caducho.

Juan Battista Maino (1581-1649) and Luis Tristán (1585-1624) knew Caravaggio's first attempt at an altarpiece of St Matthew writing the Gospel with the help of an angel, a work famously refused at the time by the French Church in Rome, and copied the stance of an apostle with legs crossed for their rendering of the penitent St Peter. The influence of their paintings (The Louvre and Poznań respectively) on the young Velázquez is evident in his version (1623), a work that was widely copied at the time.

That Velázquez had learned about Caravaggism before his first trip to Italy (1629) is evident in his St John in the Wilderness (Arts Institute of Chicago), a work newly re-attributed to him. Here, the handmaiden appears to be a painter from Viterbo, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, who came to work in Toledo for a couple of years in 1617.

At the age of 23, Velázquez moved permanently to the capital where, largely as the result of Pacheco's introductions at Court, he was appointed painter to the king in October 1623, two months after sketching the future Charles I on his ill-fated trip to win a Spanish bride for himself in Madrid.

The rest of the exhibition charts his increasing success as a portrait-painter, both in Madrid and in Rome at the papal court during his return visit there in 1650. The fortunes of Philip IV and his family would scarcely be known now but for the powerful way in which Velázquez produced iconic images, whether of the king himself or of his children Baltasar Carlos, María Theresa, and Margarita.

Alongside the full-length portrait of the scowling 76-year-old Pamphilj pope Innocent X which Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj has graciously loaned is that of his 30-year chamberlain Mgr Camillo Massimo (National Trust) and another of the 34-year-old Camillo Astalli-Pamphilj, the pope's adopted nephew, painted in the year that he was raised to the cardinalate. 

"Velázquez" is at the Grand Palais, Galeries Nationales, Square Jean Perrin, Champs-Elysées, avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris 8ème, until 13 July, open daily, except Tuesdays. Phone 00 33 (0)1 44 13 17 17. 

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