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Velázquez - National Gallery (Review)

Feature by James Haddrell

THE National Gallery possesses the world’s largest collection of Velázquez’s paintings outside of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Having secured important loans from a number of other international collections, plus eight works from the Prado itself and seven from other collections in Britain, the National has now unveiled this country’s first ever major retrospective of the Spanish’s painter’s work.

Spanish painting in the era of Velázquez was one of the richest, in terms of influence, in the world. With an empire that stretched into the New World, trade links with the Netherlands and the East, a strong residual artistic presence from the recently evicted Moors and an increasing awareness of the Renaissance flowering in Italy, Spanish painters had an unrivalled range of styles and themes to draw upon.

The young Velázquez, first represented in this exhibition at the age of about 17, paints with a reduced spatial field common to Spanish art but already he can be seen to strive for a realism outreaching that of his Spanish predecessors.

The knife overhanging the edge of the table, the pomegranate and the front of the table cloth in the early Tavern Scene anticipate the virtuoso displays of still life, already common to northern painting, which were to come to maturity just a few years later in Velázquez’s An Old Woman Cooking Eggs and The Water Seller of Seville.

Meanwhile, his characters have the un-idealised look of everyday life championed in Italy by Caravaggio (despite the fact that neither artist could yet have seen the other’s work).

A tradition common to much European art of the time was the inclusion of the contemporary figures – usually the donor – in religious scenes. Their inclusion made their generosity in commissioning the work very clear, suggested that they were spiritually worthy of having been at the event portrayed, and served to pave their way to heaven.

This was carried to almost mystical levels in Spain. In El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz some 30 years before Velázquez’s career began, Saints Stephen and Augustine miraculously appear to lay the Count’s body to rest before bearing his soul up to heaven.

Velázquez’s early works deviate from this tradition in one key way. Whilst they do often unite biblical scenes with earthly figures, the contemporary characters introduced are of low birth.

Both Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and Kitchen Scene with the Supper at Emmaus feature modern kitchen girls, the latter, possibly controversially, a Morisco (one of the Moors who had been driven out of Spain under a new law a decade earlier) at work in the foreground with a biblical scene played out in a background room.

Velázquez’s division between the earthly realm and the spiritual one is made doubly clear in his brushwork. The foreground characters, portraits from the painter’s own time, are painted with an intense attention to detail, but the spiritual scene is much more roughly handled. Where the likes of El Greco and others divided the modern and the biblical in space, Velázquez did so in style as well.

Once appointed as painter to the court portraits of the royal family dominated his production, culminating in the incredible Las Meninas (sadly not one of the eight works to have made the journey from Madrid to London) but his increasingly impressionist brush work and his commitment to portraying the lower ranks of society continued.

His representation of Mars, god of war, is not the idealised male figure of High Renaissance Italy but a weary modern day manual labourer, his body beginning to age and his face hidden in the shadow of an oversized helmet.

A portrait of Prince Baltasar Carlos shows the infant prince holding a sword and baton while his companion, a dwarf, holds toys which echo the forms of orb and sceptre. A later work sees the prince slightly older at a riding school. In the background, the king and retinue stand on a balcony and oversee the lesson, their forms defined with the barest economy of brushstrokes.

This new style must have found favour with Philip IV, Velázquez’s primary patron, and it found its way into portraits of him as well. One of the greatest portraits of the king shows him not in his usual meditative black but rather in a costume of brown and silver.

The silver threads which cover the surface of the costume, seen close up, are apparently random dashes of paint which, from a distance, merge into a flickering pattern (which would surely have been all the more effective when seen by firelight).

It is for works like this that the Impressionists so celebrated Velázquez. More than two centuries before they began to paint their subjects as they appear to the human eye, not as they are understood by the brain, Velázquez was doing just that.

The journey from the almost photographic realism of the glass of water in The Water Seller of Seville to the flickering illusionism of Philip IV in Brown and Silver is the journey between one philosophy of art and another, and it was made by one painter in a single lifetime.

Velázquez died of a sudden illness at the age of 61, but he was in no way a retired painter. The exhibition features two works from the previous year – the Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress and Prince Felipe Prospero – both of which reveal a painter still working at the height of his powers.

He was clearly an artist working ahead of his time. Had he not found, in Philip IV, a patron who could see the merit in his increasingly delicate, fragmentary style of painting, there is no way of knowing how Velázquez’s body of work would look today; equally, had his output not been cut short by his sudden death, who knows how much closer he would have come to the style of those 19th Century Parisian admirers…

Picture credit: Diego Velázquez, Mars, about 1636-8, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Until January 21, 2007
Sponsored by Abbey
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
0870 906 3891;
Open daily 10am-6pm; Wed & Sat 10am-9pm
Admission: £12.00; various concessions from £6