Why we can’t get enough of Velázquez

Two exhibition catalogues yet again confirm the dazzling genius of the artist

Walk into the great hall on the second floor of the Prado that displays 20 masterpieces by Velázquez, with Las Meninas as their centrepiece, and you encounter a palpable hush. Surrounded by some of the most famous paintings in the world, and drawn into a veritable shrine by a critical consensus that places the artist at the very highest levels of the western cultural pantheon, people seem to slow down; it is as if they need to catch their breath amid such abundance.

It was not always thus. As the venerable 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910-11) put it, Velázquez’s “European fame is of comparatively recent origin, dating from the first quarter of the 19th century… From want of popular appreciation… [his pictures] to a large extent escaped the rapacity of the French marshals during the Peninsular War.” The point is a little overstated, because collectors were already showing an interest in his work in the mid-18th century. But it is certainly true that it was not until the 19th century that he became one of a handful of artists who seem beyond cavil. In the view of that Britannica, “his marvellous technique and strong individuality have given him a power in European art such as is exercised by no other of the old masters.” The catalogues of two recent exhibitions offer the opportunity to test such judgements yet again.

The first, reflecting an exhibition that opened at the National Gallery in London in October 2006, surveys his entire career through 46 works. Starting with the humble scenes of ordinary Sevillian life that Velázquez started painting in his late teens, and proceeding through the early religious works and portraits, the overview moves on to his portrayal of life at the Spanish Court, his remarkable mature portraits, and his large-scale depictions of classical figures and events. All of the themes that preoccupied him are here, and what is amazing is how contemporary his concerns seem, even though his people and his subjects may be inherently alien to modern eyes.

This paradox, which lies at the heart of the artist’s perennial appeal, is one of the topics addressed in the catalogue essay by the curator of the exhibition, Dawson Carr. “Reality” is a word often applied to Velázquez, and Dr Carr contrasts it with an inherent ambiguity in the oeuvre. The naturalism Velázquez cultivated, his creation of recognisable people and settings, whatever the subject, is tempered by a reserve and an artifice that allow him to keep his distance. The point is well taken. In portraits that make backgrounds disappear; in the illusion of vast space in Las Meninas; in the device of using a vivid foreground to overwhelm the ostensible subject of a painting, as in Christ in the House of Martha or The Spinners; or in the bold assertion of the painter himself in Las Meninas, Velázquez could almost be post-modern, an artist who makes us think about what he is doing even as we engage with what he has done. As we wonder how he achieves his effects, we pay tribute to the wonders of his art.

A few months after the National Gallery show closed, the Prado celebrated the opening of a new wing of the museum by mounting a show devoted—for the first time—to just one aspect of Velázquez’s work: his history paintings, wherein he depicted moments or characters from sacred or mythological texts. These “fables”, as the curator, Javier Portús, calls them, enabled the artist to deploy his most dazzling skills. Moreover, by presenting him in the context of his most talented contemporaries—just over half of the 52 works on display were his; he was joined by 17 other artists, most notably by Rubens—the catalogue is able to highlight his special achievement. After observing the ways in which rivalries and influences helped shape Velázquez, one comes to see how crucial it was that, as Peter Cherry notes, “he prioritised the representation of the protagonists of the narrative.” His models, and hence the stories they embody, come alive on his canvas to a degree one senses in none of his contemporaries. Apollo and Vulcan, like St John and Aesop, are almost tangible as they stand alongside us.

It is his ability to draw us into his world that sets Velázquez apart. What we find there might be utterly unfamiliar. How many of us have been in a forge, let alone Vulcan’s? Yet the understated shock on the smith’s face as he hears of his wife’s adultery, and the interruption it causes in his assistants’ work, are all easily recognisable. The humble pitcher on the shelf even makes it an everyday scene. And we feel the same instinctive connection as Joseph’s bloody coat is brought to Jacob. It is hard to believe that an artist can bring home to us the stories of the Bible or pagan mythology, let alone the stiff atmosphere of the Spanish Court, and persuade us to revel in the beauty of what he shows. But that is indeed what Velázquez achieves, and, as these catalogues reveal yet again, why the reverence for his art continues unabated.

Theodore K. Rabb

Emeritus Professor of History

Princeton University

o Dawson Carr et al., Velázquez (The National Gallery in collaboration with Yale University Press), 224 pp, £35 (hb) ISBN 9781857093032

o Javier Portús et al., Velázquez’ Fables: Mythology and Sacred History in the Golden Age (Museo Nacional del Prado), 375 pp, £60 (hb) ASIN: B0018A56X2

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